11.24.2021

For the Boys: How Sports Gambling and Barstool Sports are Impacting a Generation

For many years, I’ve seen my students playing video games, messaging, and watching videos in school; but in the last year, I’ve noticed these pursuits have transformed from entertainment and socialization to that of side hustle. The apps have changed, the communities have changed, and so too have the negative externalities. Now when I catch my male students off task, I see them checking the balance of their favorite dopamine-inducing, risk-taking trading or gambling app (e.g. Robinhood or DraftKings). In a previous post, I wrote about the group of boys enamored with Robinhood, cryptocurrency, meme stocks, and the corresponding social media communities that impact them. This post is about the group of our boys that--thanks to legalized sports betting, a pandemic, and stimulus checks--have developed a side hustle in sports gambling.

These boys download gamified betting apps like DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesar’s, cash in on their promotional offers, and then simmer in toxic social media networks led by powerful and incivil influencers like Barstool Sports. These actions and this network have turned our boys away from the knowledge and values we hope to impart as educators and parents. And while investing and gambling poses a risk to our young men, the far greater risk is the habits and actions that are inspired by communities of like-minded risk takers.

Sportsbooks 

In 2018, the Supreme Court legalized sports betting. Since that time, 26 states have enacted laws allowing the practice. As a burgeoning industry, sportsbooks (sports betting applications), compete to build their user base. The promotions they offer range from ludicrously simple bets (bet $1 and win $100 if your team hits a three pointer) and free bets (if you lose the bet you get reimbursed), to giving away money (match deposits up to $1,000). Two of the most popular fantasy football platforms-turned-sportsbooks, FanDuel and DraftKings, lose money every quarter despite steady growth because of how much they spend on sales and marketing. It’s a race to the bottom for these competing apps, leading some users to sign up for multiple books to cash in on these juicy promotions.

The entire business model of a sportsbook is to keep a user betting. In addition to entry promos, sportsbooks find unique ways to nudge users to get them online and betting. For example, sportsbooks use microtargeting to send advertisements and promotions to users that follow certain accounts on social media. If you follow a number of athletes from a certain sport, or a number of teams from a certain city, the sportsbooks will know which ads to show you and when to show them to you. And if a user stops betting, the promotions reappear in your social media feeds and inbox.

Sportsbooks are also paying to get their brands and offers in front of sports viewers on television. In less than two years of legalized online gambling, advertising has gone from $10.7 million to $154 million on local TV spots according to Nielson. They’re reaching national audiences too; it was disorienting tuning in to the World Series and hearing Joe Buck--a man who has been calling the World Series for over 20 years--reading promotions for gambling and encouraging betting. Sportsbook executives have painted their logos in stadiums, rinks, and ballparks around the country, and they’ve also placed their logos side-by-side with major sports franchises like the NFL, MLB and NBA as “official partners.” This exposure on social feeds, in stadiums, and on television makes users more likely to visit their sportsbook and place a bet. And it makes these brands palatable to young men, erasing some of the stigma associated with gambling.

Barstool Sports 

For our young men, watching sports and betting on sports are just two legs of the stool. The third is talking about sports, and no brand is reaching more of our young men than Barstool Sports. Whereas ESPN represents the business of watching sports, Barstool exists to amplify locker room chatter and frat house basement shenanigans. Frequently criticized for its sexism and bigotry, Barstool content could never be posted by any other national sports brand like ESPN, the MLB or Nike, and that’s what makes it resonate so much with the young, male fans. An apt microcosm for the raw and edgy nature of Barstool Sports is the expression it popularized, “Saturdays are For the Boys,” which encourages young men to engage in risky behavior to impress their friends (and other barstool fanatics) at the detriment of others (mostly women).

The CEO of Barstool Sports, Dave Portnoy, whips up an army of loyal supporters, called “stoolies,” against societal and ethical norms. Portnoy’s outsized megaphone amplifies his strong cocktail of racism and misogyny and creates space for others to join his reactionary worldview. In 2015, he embraced Trump for president writing, “I am voting for Donald Trump. I don’t care if he’s a joke. I don’t care if he’s racist. I don’t care if he’s sexist… I love the fact that he is making other politicians squirm. I love the fact he says s*** nobody else will say, regardless of how ridiculous it is.” Like Trump, Portnoy is currently embroiled in several sexual assault scandals. And central to his appeal is his refusal to apologize or admit mistakes. Instead, he fights back, steering his army of stoolies--including a man he hired to wage harassment campaigns for him--at anyone who critiques him or Barstool.

Last year, Barstool Sports launched a gambling site, Barstool Sportsbook, to parlay its success attracting young, male sports fans to their brand. Whether our boys gamble with Barstool or not, the Barstool feed has emerged as a key soundtrack to sports gambling for a generation of our young men.

Impact on our Young Men

For young men, sports are meant to be fun--a way to exercise and connect with friends--but nowadays (thanks in large part to sportsbooks and Barstool) sports have become a side-hustle. When you feel like your money and your identity are on the line, you act in ways that change your character and that can negatively impact your community. I’ve written previously about how our boys participate in sports for their own stats, highlights, and college signing rather than for camaraderie, community, and character building. The same thing is happening to watching sports. Our young men research players, stats, and games to place a bet, rather than to cheer on a team or be part of a great game. The same thing is happening when talking about sports. This generation watches sports with a second screen in hand (e.g. TV and Phone), which means that periodically throughout a game, one can place a new bet or hunt for off-the-field content that will enhance the watching experience.

What unites the changes described above is a powerful psychological trick exploited by gambling and social media companies alike called variable rewards. Psychologists discovered that when subjects receive intermittent rewards, they find it extremely challenging to disrupt a behavior. Whether pursuing promos in a gambling app, placing a bet, pulling to refresh your social media, or posting on social media and awaiting the likes, these actions release dopamine in the brain, signaling to your brain that something awesome might happen. The way our boys are participating in sports currently demands a tightening of the dopamine-infused feedback loops. Instead of betting on an NFL game, they bet on every single drive (more dopamine and more variable rewards). Instead of consuming Barstool content, they try to make their own (more chances for likes, comments, and shares). The slow and steady stream of sports betting invites riskier decision-making. Of course, the escalation of risk-taking behavior extends beyond the individual into our communities.

These changes to our boys’ behavior include a shifting of values. For example, when our boys get together over sports, their interests remain selfish as everyone has his own bet (his own side hustle). Even if your (or a friend’s) team lost, as long as you win the bet you declare victory. At the same time, there’s an agreement that groups of boys are bound together (For the Boys), and that they should feel empowered to make mistakes as young men, including harassment, peer pressure, bullying, and bigotry. Our boys call it anti-PC (political correctness), society calls it toxic masculinity. Egged on by Barstool and its CEO, young men resist acknowledging others’ feelings and refuse to make any apologies. Stoolies dox, they brigade, and they never apologize for acting how they’ve been told by Barstool that men should act.

Status and Side Hustle 

In sports and in life, this generation of boys seek to optimize their time and knowledge. If you’re going to be researching sports, watching sports, and playing sports, you might as well turn that knowledge into some cash. The same can be said for boys that are tuned into the conversations about which fan did something outrageous, which athlete has a beautiful girlfriend, or which broadcaster shared his politics. Being in on the joke, and being able to provide your “take” on what you consumed on social media bestows a similar kind of status. And if there’s an easy bet or a hilarious post that you miss, FOMO is a powerful motivator; you’ll be sure to be in on the next one as it reflects your identity and status.

When you bet on a game, friends ask for your “take” (in person and on social media). If you win your bet, friends view you as knowledgeable about sports, and a savvy side hustler. Many leverage their status to create personal brands by sharing their takes online or selling merchandise to follow in the footsteps of their favorite influencers. Those boys who can turn an interest into a side hustle gain status and respect. This status can get to one’s head. In a recent Insider piece that lays out the assault allegations against Portnoy, one 19-year old college student who was a victim of Portnoy’s advances attributed his predatory behavior to the fact that he felt emboldened by his status. Status changes behavior. As adults and mentors, we need to keep an eye on it.

Community & Values 

Not all of our boys who like sports are “stoolies” loyally following Barstool; many of them check in and out for the pizza reviews and the memes. But if you play sports in high school or college, you know someone who has “For the Boys” souvenirs, and you’ve heard someone deploy the misogynistic slogan to justify engaging in risky behavior and/or treating someone else poorly. Over time, the lines between social media and sports gambling become blurred. In the same way friends, FOMO, and the drive to optimize one’s time can convince young men to place a bet, edgelords and sh*tposters that populate social media feeds with Barstool-like content slowly make an impact (see Irony Poisoning).


Blurring the lines between online sports life and reality, Barstool uses its influence to normalize all the gut-level behaviors associated with being a manly man and a sports fan. They make it okay to objectify women, to make bigoted comments, and to peer pressure friends. For example, Portnoy and stoolies are infamous for the sexual harassment of female sports analysts. There’s not a lot of research or editing in their posts because the strongest push of the Barstool brand is to create content. To this end, Barstool, Portnoy, and stoolies are a responsive community, seeking to take and share content from their audience. They create numerous smaller brands including those that encompass different colleges and even college conferences (e.g. Barstool NESCAC), which inspires stoolies to try to do something on brand for Barstool that will get them featured on their local Barstool handle.

* * *

What scares me most about the sportsbook--Barstool Sports tandem is that despite one’s most egregious gambling decisions, and despite one’s most egregious behavior, there’s always someone to validate that person’s decision-making as long as it’s “For the Boys.” And there’s always someone who has done worse--just check the Barstool feed. In the same way that the sportsbooks are in a race to the bottom to hook users, our young men are in a race to the bottom to align themselves the most with the Barstool brand.

As an educator, I wonder about the opportunity cost associated with sports gambling. What else could our young men research assiduously? From what other communities could they network and learn? And as an educator, I worry about the impact on surrounding constituencies. I worry our young men’s dopamine-fueled, risk-taking is leading to unhealthy relationships and unhealthy decision-making, which disproportionately affects our young women.

I recently caught up with a former student--now in college--who caught himself gambling on European basketball on a Tuesday at 9 AM in his religion class. To his credit, he quit. Unfortunately for him, it’s still in front of his face all the time. I recount this story to implore readers to reach out to the young men in their life. Ask questions, listen without judgment, and be a mentor.

11.18.2021

Stealing from Our Boys and Giving to the Rich

"Seems like asking my friends if they have Robinhood on their phone is just as common as asking them if they have snapchat" -HS senior & varsity athlete
In the last month, journalists, intellectuals, and parents across the world have heaped criticism on Facebook, whose own research says that Instagram is uniquely bad for teenage girls. But teenage boys are also suffering at the hands of the online community, encountering the negative externalities associated with gamified apps and digital communities. While a generation of our young women are posting pictures in a space where they can see--down to a number--how their body performs on a digital marketplace of likes, comments, and messages, a generation of our young men are speculating in volatile assets in search of a similar dopamine hit of likes, comments, messages, and status.

Pandemic restrictions, stimulus checks, and social media drove many of our boys to develop a side hustle in investment banking. They download apps like Robinhood, purchase volatile crypto assets like Dogecoin, and enter intense communities led by powerful influencers like Elon Musk. It’s changing how our boys see themselves, to the detriment of the civic and character lessons we are trying to teach in schools.

$HOOD & Free Trading
The most popular of these apps, Robinhood, aimed to “democratize finance for all” by allowing everyone to trade. Rather than charging per trade like its competitors, Robinhood makes its money selling order flow to the big Wall Street firms. Robinhood makes more money selling options order flows than equity order flows, which means that the company’s business model depends on a high volume of risky trades.

To incentivize trading, Robinhood took a page out of the social media companies’ book and built an addictive, gamified application. When users signed up, they received essentially a scratch-off ticket that yielded a free stock! And when users completed a trade, confetti fell on the screen. Engineers designed trading to be as frictionless as possible to ensure the experience kept users coming back. And the app was designed specifically “to appeal to the video-game generation of young, inexperienced investors” (Forbes). The app encourages day-trading, and all the research on investing shows that day traders tend to lose money, and those who trade more, lose more.

With a pandemic shutting down all social events and--crucially for this age group--sporting events, young men opened free accounts at an astonishing clip (22.5 million users in 2021). One such young man, a 20-year old college student, Alexander Kearns, took his own life in June 2020 after mistakenly believing he had over $730,000 in debt to Robinhood for options trading (CBS).

The nascent company is already mired in legal trouble, including a lawsuit from Kearns’s parents, a $65 million fine to the SEC, and another $70 million to settle a FINRA investigation . More recently, in May, the financial press attacked Robinhood because it had to literally shut down crypto trading in the midst of a liquidity crisis sparked by its users' rush to buy speculative cryptocurrencies, specifically the satirical currency Dogecoin.

Dogecoin & Meme Stocks
In the first quarter of 2021, “Dogecoin accounted for 34% of Robinhood’s cryptocurrency transaction-based revenue, and 6% of the trading firm’s overall revenue in the same period.” (Scott Galloway). Nevertheless, no financial professional would recommend frequent Dogecoin trading as an investment strategy. Not even Dogecoin’s own founder wants people to invest in crypto, which he calls a “cult-like ‘get rich quick’ funnel.” Dogecoin is not a means of exchange, it’s not a store of value, and it will not replace fiat currency. But it’s lucrative, and it’s fun.

While the stimulus did bring a number of new investors into the markets, it also inflated a number of the most attractive pandemic-era stocks (like Amazon and Apple). In previous recessions, investors with money could buy great companies for cheap--not this time. As such, new investors, egged on by the Robinhood app, sought riskier investments. Young men investigated cryptocurrencies. Many take screenshots of their Robinhood app to show off their winnings on social media. In a similar way that likes on an Instagram post make users feel popular and attractive, good investments make young traders feel smart, savvy and even visionary.

The biggest driver of cryptocurrency trading is a cult-like and energetic community of evangelists, including Elon Musk. Musk, often referred to as the “Dogefather,” drives up the price of dogecoin with a single tweet. And when he hosted SNL, Dogecoin dropped 30%! Nevertheless this currency, and many others, have loyal followers that hold (or “HODL”) the assets at all costs and can find a million reasons why these assets will go “up and to the right.” Communities of like-minded young investors are gathering on Reddit pages, Discord servers, and Twitter hashtags. Not only does this community provide confirmation bias for our young men, but it also encourages additional trading and further investigation into similar products like coins or NFTs. Like how Instagram creates a poisonous FOMO in its users, young men in these social media communities experience an infectious FOMO, not wanting to miss the next big thing by continuing to trade frequently.

One particular investor community on Reddit called Wall Street Bets snatched the financial spotlight in January when investors flocked to “meme stocks” like Game Stop and AMC, running up these stocks for the investors willing to risk wild fluctuations investing in languishing companies. Many succeeded, celebrating their capitalist spirit by posting their winnings online. One key aspect to this movement (in addition to nostalgia for the mall and movie theaters), was a desire to “stick it to the man”: in this case, institutional investors that had shorted GameStop. While the movement exposed the short-sellers, ironically “the man” still ended up ahead, buying the order flow and playing the same pump and dump game as the Redditors buying meme stocks.

Impact on our Young Men

That our young men are studying finance, currency, and technology is positive. Disruptive technologies are worth studying; I’ve been teaching cryptocurrency since 2014, and I added a smart contracts unit last year. It’s worth critically considering the complexities, challenges, and opportunities of new technology. I am no luddite. “Democratizing finance” seems good. But manipulating users with a controversial business model and app design is bad. The egalitarian, libertarian movement towards cryptocurrency could create positive changes in our society (e.g. banking the unbanked and creating new financial instruments like smart contracts). But the majority of our young men are not studying disruptive technologies, they’re trying to “get mine” while “worshiping a crowd” of believers and we need to evaluate the negative externalities associated with that behavior.

Get Mine
The “get mine” philosophy comes from the fact that everything in our students’ lives has been metricized. It starts not online, but at school, with GPAs and SATs that increasingly drive our students’ behavior. In order to succeed within this structure, our students spend time performing for a teacher, a coach, a standardized test, or an admissions committee. In the past, teens have blown off steam with risky behavior like sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but those behaviors are declining, and the pandemic has catalyzed the decline. So Robinhood serves as a substitute.

Another key driver of the “get mine” attitude is that the path to financial stability available to previous generations is just not available to the current generation. Our culture and our economy drives college graduates to go get another degree, to take on more debt. Beyond college student loan debt is the crippling cost of a mortgage, especially in cities and suburbs where knowledge-based work is best available. Given these realities, it’s no wonder our students are feeling disillusioned. It’s no wonder many are embracing volatility as a way to make money, and fast, while also gaining status as a successful investor who understands complicated concepts in economics and in technology.

Worship the Crowds
That sense of disillusionment makes it easy to find belonging in a community that mixes fun and easy money, especially when that community has your back. They’ll stick together to shut down and drown out anyone trying to rain on their parade. As much as cryptocurrency evangelists celebrate successes, they spend as much time dismissing critics to mitigate the cognitive dissonance. Many tech journalists have documented the “crypto bros” with matching NFT avatars brigading critics. Once in the community, the worship of the crowd and the confirmation bias that comes with it makes it hard to critically consider these nascent technologies. Trying to understand cryptocurrency and its impact on the world requires more than an avatar, a slogan, or a meme. Nevertheless, it’s far easier for our boys to reify their identity within the group by telling outsiders they’re “Not Gonna Make It” (NGMI) and to “Have Fun Staying Poor” (HFSP). And it’s more fun to try to get in early on the next big thing to gain wealth and status in the community.

The most prominent member of the movement, and the richest man in the world, Elon Musk, acts as if he were a rank-and-file member of this crypto community--one who defies conventional wisdom, takes on established institutions, and remains worthy of praise no matter what. On Twitter, Musk provoked the SEC when he infamously threatened to take his company private at $420 a share (a weed joke), he infuriated $TSLA stockholders when he said the stock was overvalued, and he attacked senator Bernie Sanders (VT) and Ron Wyden (OR) when they asked him to pay more in taxes (one of which was so offensive I won’t link it here). Because of these tweets, Musk is a hero to crypto fans. He’s in on the Dogecoin fun, often tweeting memes in support of the cryptocurrency. Those tweets make Dogecoin spike. When Elon Musk spars with citizens, the SEC, or Congress, he sends a message to his followers that when you are rich, you make your own rules--that we don’t need to treat people with respect, that we don’t need an SEC to create a healthy financial industry, and that we don’t Congress to legislate (despite the fact that Congress literally bailed out Tesla in 2009!).

* * *

Trading cryptocurrency on Robinhood ensures your portfolio sits in your pocket all day, everyday, 24/7/365. My students check their account during class. I worry about what this does to a young man’s psyche and sense of place in the world. On Instagram, our girls are optimizing their looks and their posts for social status; and they’re depressed. Meanwhile, our boys are learning that everything is economic and their self worth is connected to their portfolios. And our boys are in need of help too, as we’re seeing negative mental health outcomes, a decline in romantic relationships, and a drop in interest in higher education.

This generation has definitely been dealt a tough hand, a number of America’s prized institutions (e.g college and Congress) and markets (e.g. the stock market and home ownership) are not working for them. The lasting challenges facing this generation are massive. There are sophisticated political and geographic challenges like the polarization of our electorate that will surely be exacerbated by the “worship of the crowds” approach (see QAnon and January 6). Our climate is in a state of crisis. Ironically while Musk’s company is helping with that, his crypto evangelism is making matters significantly worse (most cryptocurrencies are incredibly energy intensive). Solving these challenges requires sustained engagement, coalition building, and innovation and they cannot be reduced to lolz, memes, and money.

Educators and schools would be wise to catch the Robinhood-using, stock- and meme-trading, Musk-loving, boys. Our ability to serve as mentors and further the character education of our young men depends on us understanding their activities and their needs. Our ability to graduate quality citizens depends on meeting them where they are, teaching them ethical decision making, and guiding them to moral communities. And, of course, we must design curriculum and projects that inspire our boys to pursue worthy and authentic causes beyond school.

Sometimes I wake up at night and think about the fact that everyone who has ever downloaded Robinhood and invested in cryptocurrencies has never experienced anything but a bull market. What happens when that changes? Who will be holding the bag on these risky assets? When that earthquake shakes, how do we (re)embrace our young men?

5.07.2020

Snapchat, Instagram, & Twitter Drive Controversial Conversations in Schools

This post was published in NAIS Independent Teacher Magazine (link)
Image via Unsplash
Social media, not schools, has emerged as the place where students discuss controversial events and ideas, a trend that teachers and parents need to address proactively. From politics to school discipline, from sexual harassment to racism, when our school community stumbles into disagreement, our students debate in polarizing spaces without adults present. As educators and school leaders, we have to accept that we cannot graduate responsible citizens without directly addressing the problems created by social media.

As a teacher who wants to be there to help students through social and political strife, I frequently find that my students have already expressed their opinions and aired their differences on social media before they arrive in class, and I'm never privy to the details. This fact makes those controversial topics hard to cover in my classroom for a number of reasons. First, we’re not all starting from the same point. Some students know more than others in terms of what’s been posted, and all of them know more than I do. Second, it means that many of the students have already publicly taken sides on any given issue via those online posts. When students have already voiced support for a side and know they’re not alone, it’s harder for them to listen to others, compromise, or change opinions. And other students are less likely to engage a student who has already staked out a position.

Fundamentally, I believe that students should have as many controversial conversations as possible face-to-face and—if we can swing it—with an adult present. I feel fortunate that that’s how I learned how to articulate opinions supported by evidence and how to disagree civilly. Through conversation, I figured out how I felt about contentious issues. Productive conversation incorporates body language, and face-to-face conversations promote empathy and understanding. And it’s crucial to have an informed mediator present to help facilitate a fair, civil, and factual conversation. If those conversations take place in the classroom, a teacher can push students to use evidence and to find common ground. An educator can help students see and consider the additional nuances and complexities of a controversial conversation. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, students are using Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter to discuss controversial issues. Here’s how that tends to go when something controversial happens at school or in the world. A student (or group of students) takes a stand on the issue in a public setting or in a public post. Then, other students react to it by responding to the individual directly or indirectly by posting their own commentary online. On Snapchat, that can happen semi-publicly with a story or more privately with a “private story.” On Twitter, that often happens via “private Twitter”—smaller Twitter networks where students connect only with their close friends and where students rant about things that irk them. Frequently, when controversy arises in these spaces, students screenshot the altercation and send it to group chats for further discussion (often leaving out the initial participants).

During a community meeting, a campus club did a presentation on Flint’s water crisis where they mentioned and explained the term “environmental racism.” Before students arrived at my next class, not 10 minutes later, there were already memes circulating on Twitter and Snapchat by students who ridiculed the concept of environmental racism (and their classmates who worked to raise awareness) by posting an image or emoji of a tree and writing “the trees are racist” and many variations of that message.

When this happened, I was incredibly disappointed. I was upset with the content of the post, as it showed that students were ill-informed and unwilling to listen to their peers. And, I was upset by the us versus them mentality that resulted from the meeting and was exacerbated by the posts. Before anyone had considered the topic thoughtfully, each student had staked a position by “liking” a post. It’s hard to get students to understand context and reconsider a position through instruction and discussion once they’ve already connected themselves to a cause on social media. I was also upset that this all happened digitally rather than face-to-face. Digital interaction allows students to confine themselves to their own polarized network with friends who are more likely to support them. And finally, I was upset that no adults in the building were aware of these posts. If they’re not aware, they can’t create the time to host a conversation to help students articulate their opinions (in more than just a meme-style post) and respond to each other civilly.

The event described above made me wonder how frequently these topics and responses emerge online among our students without adults having any idea that it’s happening. Spoiler alert: It’s common! Unfortunately, there are a number of triggers that result in students gravitating toward digital spaces with networks of like-minded peers to address contentious issues. And all of these issues hurt teaching and learning in our classrooms and erode the values of our school community.

Sometimes our school rolls out a policy that students disagree with, and they post about it online. Our school has shut down student T-shirt ideas, modified themed dress-down days, and opposed national political decisions. These actions have resulted in angry, uncivil posts where students attack the school or blame other students (directly or via subtweet) for being the reason something got changed or shut down. Other times, these controversies come from national politics or current events, which our students often encounter through these same social media apps.

When the President ended DACA and committed to building a wall on the southern border, students fought it out digitally over who was welcome and who was not welcome in the country and, by extension, the school.

Political quarrels like this one can lead to long Instagram threads where students attack each other’s politics, race, socioeconomic status, and more. These disagreements disproportionately hurt our most vulnerable students. Behind screens, it’s easier to express disrespectful, unsubstantiated feelings, and it’s easier to dismiss opposition. It’s also easier to post something inappropriate and then claim you were joking if others call you out on it. This happens all too frequently in the digital spaces our students occupy.

In society at large, and in our schools, we’re seeing a rise in echo chambers—spaces where people learn from and exchange ideas only with like-minded individuals. Unfortunately, many of these spaces do not value the things schools and teachers do when it comes to discussion and collaboration: things like veracity, civility, humility, and empathy. Nevertheless, when controversial conversations begin online, our students retreat to their smaller, more private digital spaces—whether that’s a group chat, a Finsta or a private Snap story—to unload their most controversial opinions. And these echo chambers breed conformity, diametric thinking, tribalism, and, at their worst, radicalization.

One day, two students shared with me that they spent the last evening sitting together arguing back and forth with classmates about mass shootings, school safety, and gun control. While one student researched information, the other tweeted their opinions bolstered by this information. It went on for hours.

In addition to the problems of echo chambers online, it’s clear that our students are also suffering from confirmation bias, carefully cherry-picking facts to “win” an argument. Unfortunately, both in our schools and nationally, conversations have become zero-sum games in which one party “wins” and one “loses.” They’re trying to score points, measured by likes and retweets, and they are using simplistic tactics like memes and hypotheticals, which are exacerbated by the superficiality of much online conversation, to persuade passive onlookers.

No matter how these controversial conversations start, having them online polarizes our school community. Both locally and nationally, online disputes result in the loudest, most extreme voices being amplified. Bystanders promote extreme voices with “likes” even if those liking the post don’t agree with it in its entirety. And, those upstanders who disagree, or want to better understand the complexities involved before speaking up, often retreat into smaller networks or offline entirely. After all, these online conversations are antithetical to complexity.

The conversations incubated in echo chambers and waged by extreme voices equipped with confirmation bias lead to a number of assumptions about who is on which side of an issue and why. There is no context. Instead, tribe members attack a projected worst version of an opponent.

Finally, it’s important to understand that even after these debates occur online, it doesn’t drive students to meet and talk face-to-face the next day. On the contrary, they will literally walk past someone in the hallway that they were arguing with online the night before without saying a word. The next day, these disputes will move through the school via hearsay or screenshot, but rarely do the actual participants seek to clarify or further discuss, face-to-face, what was typed. As a result, these exchanges affect the learning in our classrooms for several days—and not just with the students involved.

Proactively addressing the problems described above requires us to pay attention to digital disagreements and endeavor to bring these issues into our classrooms for face-to-face conversations. Classroom conversations are a vital counterpoint to online echo chambers. Students are unable to confine their discussions to their preferred networks. Teachers can head off confirmation bias. And with face-to-face conversations—even with like-minded individuals—extreme statements get tempered by the group, by facial expressions, by tone, and by additional information (and space for more characters). These face-to-face classroom conversations highlight the seriousness and complexity of an issue. They promote empathy and they provide the space and support for participants to evolve their opinions as they learn more. Finally, and perhaps most important, moving these conversations off of social media and into the classroom teaches students citizenship via consensus and coalition building, which will help us graduate leaders equipped to move people and solve problems.

11.25.2019

Dear Parents: YourKids are on YouTube, what do YouDo?

 
In the best-case scenario, YouTube represents a fulfilling space for learning, for connecting and for creativity. As contributors, users can creatively share passions and connect with a global audience eager to collaborate and provide feedback. As consumers, users can learn from a network of experts and professional organizations. Whether that’s studying for a physics test, learning a new song on the guitar, keeping up with current events, or auditing a college level course, YouTube’s versatility makes it a valuable tool for our society--one that encourages us to be active, informed citizens ready to teach, learn, and improve our world.

In the worst-case scenario, YouTube transforms us into passive, entertained, consumers where we watch endless videos from an algorithmically curated playlist. YouTube’s algorithm--which certainly does not share our values--is famous for pushing extreme content including misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hatred.  

As a parent, how do we ensure our children use YouTube in the best-case scenario--as active, informed citizens--and not in the worst-case scenario--as passive, entertained consumers? Well, in the same way that the examples above depend on “how” children use YouTube, as parents, “how” we respond to our children’s use of YouTube will determine our success in moving them towards the best-case scenario. 

How do our children use YouTube?
Unfortunately, we can’t count on YouTube to promote consumption and creation in line with our values. YouTube has consistently failed to moderate content, so that our children aren’t exposed to inappropriate, vulgar, and hateful content (YouTube has also been busted by the FTC for storing data of children under 12). For example, they won’t control content on the YouTube kids app, and they refuse to make tough decisions about inflammatory content on YouTube. YouTube’s bottom line depends on a metric called “time on site.” Therefore, YouTube’s algorithm--which accounts for 70% of its views--either feeds us entertainment or a steady stream of fear and outrage because that’s what yields clicks, shares, and engagement. It nudges users towards more and more extreme content understanding that "time on site" skyrockets when users fall down a rabbit hole of sensational content. And its been effective: Users watch over 1 billion hours on YouTube a day and researchers have proven that both flat earthers and the alt-right have expanded their reach thanks to YouTube’s algorithm. 

Hopefully, our children aren’t watching sensationalized, controversial content or getting sucked down a rabbit hole of extreme content. But it’s easier to get sucked in than we might think. Watching a video about Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump during the 2016 election led users to conspiracy theories about the government. Typing in “Federal Reserve” leads users to conspiracy theories about the Fed and follows with more about the Illuminati. Frequently, our children arrive at YouTube when sent a link by a peer in group chat or by a user on a message board--locations where extreme voices ring the loudest while introducing our children to “edgy” or offensive content that--should anyone be offended--is immediately labeled just a joke. That algorithm and these preconditions mix for a toxic binge.

The most direct draws to YouTube for our children are interests and influencers. Whether they want to hear political opinions, learn about video games, or practice new make-up techniques, on YouTube, our children enter tight-knit communities led by individual creators rather than professional organizations or civic leaders. In the last year, all of these YouTube communities have faced intense public outcry for offensive content. YouTube stood by the homophobic content of a political contributor; YouTube’s top account encouraged gaming viewers to watch anti-semitic videos; and racism rocked MUA (make up artists), one of YouTube’s tightest communities. YouTube’s algorithm links like minded accounts. Therefore the actions of a handful of creators (or users) will determine the videos recommended to our children. Clearly, we can’t count on YouTube’s content creators and leaders (or their loyal followers) to teach the algorithm to recommend quality information and highlight civil, intelligent leaders.

YouTube’s most powerful, yet esoteric, draw is the potential for a creator to become an influencer. In today’s economy, every child wants to be an influencer because top influencers make millions just by producing content (selling or reviewing products, teaching, or recording your daily life). It’s incredibly challenging to become an influencer and many who do so burn out. Fans demand access and content. As a result, influencer’s lives and videos become more extreme with the demands of their fans. Nevertheless, our children rarely see the darker side of being an influencer from mental breakdown, to drugs, to bankruptcy (see Justin Bieber or James Charles). It makes sense that young people want to aspire to that life, especially when they only see the positives.

How do we respond to how our children use YouTube?
We have to do two things 1) rethink the assumptions we make about YouTube and 2) ask better questions when our children use YouTube. 

Generally, adults write off YouTube as an entertainment app or a strange voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of strangers. But if we trivialize the app or whatever content our children may be consuming, we will not find common ground and therefore we won’t be able to steer them toward that best-case scenario mentioned above. Instead, we need to change our assumptions. 59% of Gen Z users cite YouTube as their primary learning tool. YouTube is not a collection of videos, it’s the information system for our children. We must engage our children with those stakes in mind as we seek to listen, to learn, and to empathize. Start with a “help me understand...” so that our children will lead the conversation about their interests. Then, we can evaluate where they are and how we can try to steer them towards the best-case scenario.

Currently, when we ask our children about YouTube we say, “what are you doing?” or “what are you watching?” This results in an instinctive dismissal because the majority of the time, they’re watching something we don’t understand. Instead, we need to enter conversations looking to ask, “how does this video/this creator make you feel?” And, “what do you intend to do with the information you’re learning?” These questions get to the heart of YouTube’s impact on children, and they get to what children take from the platform and how they use it in their lives. This will help our children understand when they are on YouTube as a passive, entertained consumer, and not an active, informed citizen. And, again, it will help us use their words to steer them towards the best-case scenario.

As we investigate our children’s mindset and actions, so to must we investigate YouTube’s. We should have honest conversations about YouTube’s goals of ad revenue via user generated content, user data, and an addictive algorithm. The best way to fight back against YouTube’s thousand coders is to get online with a strategy--know what you seek and know what you will do after acquiring it. That way your “time on site” is clearly defined by your interest and goals and not those of a billion dollar corporation. To help your child learn this skill, ask, “how (in what state of mind) did you get on YouTube? What were your goals?” That way, we can determine what extent of time online was intentional rather than algorithm-driven. This strategy helps create active, informed citizens. There’s a handy browser extension called DF YouTube that eliminates all algorithmically generated content from YouTube. Start here!

Finally, if your child strives to become a creator perhaps with ambitions of being labeled an influencer, support them. More often than not, it’s just a phase and not worth the disagreement. YouTube is great for learning and being creative. Embrace it. In all academic pursuits, hopefully your child is researching, iterating, emulating, and showing resilience. This process allows them to see that best-case scenario even if they may be striving for it in a time, place, and area of interest that likely won’t endure. And of course, if you have privacy concerns (which you should), ask them to start posting “unlisted” or “private” content using a pseudonym (and read this article for additional suggestions about controlling the data Google mines on all of us). 
  
Let’s commit to preparing our children to use this wonderful application as active, engaged citizens, ready to learn, connect, and create. You’re a parent, so you know It’s hard to change a child’s habits, but with an app as powerful as YouTube the stakes are high. So, listen to understand, ask the right questions and--as in all things--act as a role model in your life online and off!

10.21.2019

Technology and the Poisoning of the Pedagogical Well

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The potential that technology has to transform education is tremendous, but over a decade into its adoption, it’s still just that, potential. That’s because as more teachers and schools have deployed technology, they’ve poisoned the proverbial well--individuals and organizations have adopted technology poorly and it’s ruining technology’s promise for the rest of us.

It’s not that schools and educators aren’t trying; schools are spending a fortune on educational technology from devices to consultants to professional development, and teachers are quickly updating their lessons and practices to accommodate a technologically saturated student body. Venture capitalists, silicon valley companies, and tech billionaires are using money and influence to embed educational technology in schools. 

The reason all of these constituencies are dedicating resources to technology is because it allows access to the world’s information; as such, teachers can provide autonomy to students so they can pursue interests and expand and deepen their knowledge beyond the classroom walls. And, technology provides inexpensive, user-friendly applications so teachers can inject engagement and creativity into their classrooms. 

Imagine a student researching a topic of interest. Today, that includes access to the world’s information, and access to the world’s professionals. Google is the ultimate learning tool. Once curious and informed, students can go straight to the source by digesting the words of a professional by watching TED Talks, listening to podcasts, or reading their work online. With social media, students can do this indefinitely with the follow button. Even better, they can directly converse with a professional via email, tweet, or message. After a deep, sustained research process, students can think critically and communicate creatively with a number of free tools and professional examples. From Google, Apple, and Adobe to tablet applications and online editing tools, students have an endless suite of products available to them to create and share a masterpiece (not to mention a thousand online tutorials to help them learn how to create or edit something their heart desires). The technology described above has powered excitement in education around project-based learning, personalized learning, experiential education, gamification and many more. 

Schools and administrators quickly seize upon the successes of the individual teachers that are savvy in academic technology, and they try to push others to do the same. From schools to students to teachers, as more constituencies embrace technology and seek ambitious, positive goals, it has resulted in short-sighted, pedagogical failures. Technology’s ubiquity, has birthed bad pedagogy, which has poisoned the well for the technologically and pedagogically savvy.
 

SCHOOLS - From progress to convenience 

As schools and administrators have seen the success of technology in learning, they have pushed teachers to adopt technology for the sake of “progress” and 21st century learning. Those ambitious goals fade within a year or two, and what schools have actually come to depend on with respect to technology is convenience. When all teachers post assignments online, grade online, and communicate online, it allows a perfect paper-trail for administrators to explain problems with students and teachers alike. Administrators reference technology to talk about 21st century skills and a 21st century job market; many have adopted words like innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial--only to force students into the same centuries-old factory model of subject-bell, subject-bell, repeat and for homework with task-submission, task-submission, repeat. When students seek autonomy and creativity elsewhere, like social media, schools are quick to play whack-a-mole hoping to limit agency and enforce conformity. Schools are decidedly not teaching digital citizenship and media literacy, thereby ensuring students are not using their devices as an extension of their intellectual and character education and are not leaving school with 21st century skills ready for a changing workforce.

STUDENTS - From learning & creativity to distraction 

If you sit in the back of a high school classroom with devices out, you will see videos, messages, and games running concurrently with classroom instruction. Our students use technology all the time; and, capitalism has driven the biggest tech companies--from social media platforms to video games to streaming services--to compete for their attention in order to sell advertising. Companies do this by traveling down the brain stem to keep our students hooked. For some teachers that celebrate the creative pursuits of their students via devices, these apps and connections can foster learning, collaboration and creativity. But to most teachers, these pursuits are a distraction from the course content. Most teachers now see open devices in class as a headache. Many aren’t allowing students to take notes on devices anymore. 

TEACHERS - From transformative learning to “package and submit”

Because teachers see many of their students as distracted, they struggle to leverage technology for depth of research, collaboration, and creativity (let alone sustained engagement). Instead, teachers are leveraging technology the way schools are, more for convenience than for progress. As such, teachers are implementing poor pedagogical techniques to meet the parameters created by schools and students around classroom technology.  

To control for the parameters placed on them, teachers have perverted technology use from autonomy, deeper learning, and communication/collaboration/creativity to a much more small classroom culture of what I call “package and submit.” In order to ensure their students are on task and using the resources that they’re supposed to, teachers ask students to use their devices for simple knowledge-based tasks and then demand to see each task (and sometimes grade it). Whether an English teacher asking students to answer questions about an author or submit reading journals or a Science teacher asking students to turn in a worksheet, a pre-lab, and a lab, tasks are small, and checkpoints are frequent. Often, students will go to Google; they use the copy and paste features on their devices in order to package information and submit it. This style of instruction is not at all innovative or creative (read: not progress), it’s just easy (read: convenient), made even easier by modern learning management systems like Google Classroom. 

Schools and administrators are totally okay with package and submit culture; in fact, they welcome it. It’s good for administrators and parents because assignments are transparent and available online. Many schools are even going to open online gradebooks. And these grades depend on whether or not a student can package and submit, which is largely objective. This has led to grade inflation, specifically for organized students (rather than inspired or intelligent students). Clearly these changes are convenient for administrators and parents, but teachers too have learned to embrace them, understanding that grading transparently and objectively is an easy way to keep administrators and parents off one’s back.

That said, administrators are trying to have it both ways by also pointing to a successful technological project to justify the widespread use of technology in school (and purchase of devices, applications, and professional development). But those successes are declining, fast. 

The methods described above that we currently use to administer technologically-driven pedagogy are simultaneously undermining it. If a teacher gives significant class or homework time for an assignment that allows autonomy and creativity, he will find that his students will spend some of that time off task, cut corners (copy/paste), and submit and forget it. That’s because that’s what all of their other teachers are requiring, and our students are being conditioned to package and submit (and they’re getting good grades!). And that’s ruining academic technology for the rest of us. Even if a couple of students did embrace autonomy, enjoy learning outside of class, and submit something truly creative and unique, the math is simple for most teachers: for what percentage of my students did this project go as planned? And how much of my course content did I forgo to create this technologically driven opportunity? These fears and the uncertain results of a unique and creative project or activity lead to a regression in digital pedagogy, a regression to convenience, to package and submit, and to transparency and objectivity. The well is poisoned.


If we truly want our students to succeed in our schools and beyond, we have to plan for autonomy and creativity and give our students time to acquire a depth of knowledge in an area of interest. Only then will students better understand themselves in digital spaces and uncover professional opportunities in digital spaces. If we don’t, more and more administrators and teachers will embrace “package and submit” (and grade) as the only way to ensure students complete an activity or project requiring technology. As this gets worse, the medium becomes the message; if computers in school becomes synonymous with Google, copy/paste, and package and submit, that will become the norm for our students not just in school, but also in the professional world. 

If we don’t fix our pedagogy, our students will still explore interests in digital spaces where they have autonomy, and creativity. They’ll just do it without our guidance and mentorship. Today’s information landscape is complex, deceptive, and even dangerous. Let’s not outsource our job as teachers to YouTube, Reddit, Netflix, or Fortnite. Unfortunately, up to this point, instead of leaning into those spaces, we’ve shut them down. 

The good news is we can solve this. After all, we made this mistake; we ruined the incentive structure for students and teachers using technology. We need to start by listening to our students, mentoring our students in digital spaces, and trusting our students when we embark on technological exercises. We must endeavor to get our entire faculty on the same pedagogical page with respect to technology. Finally, but most importantly, we have to investigate the structures that drive our schools and modify things like our schedule or our gradebooks to maximize for a new style of 21st century digital learning, one that embraces autonomy and engagement, promotes depth of research, and rewards creativity.

9.17.2019

Dear Educators: Algorithms are Radicalizing our Boys

Recently, I've seen several tweets from educators asking about how to teach internet culture, specifically how to help our boys avoid radicalization in online spaces. It's imperative that we address this in schools. As someone who has had his eye on this issue for a number of years, I'll do my best to help move the dialogue forward by presenting the problems in layman's terms.

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First, and foremost, it's important to provide a basic understanding of how these online spaces work. The engine that drives the internet is "time on site" and the best way to increase the amount of time people spend online is to manipulate them psychologically into getting and staying online. That's why games and social media companies use variable rewards--just like slot machines--to get people online. Those rewards release dopamine, which yields clicks. To keep you "on site," tech companies mine your data so they knows who you are, what you like, and what is most likely to get you to engage. Then, they feed your data into an algorithm that manipulates you into clicking on more things you might like.

What tech companies have learned is that feeding people affirmation gets clicks, but feeding people fear and outrage yield even more clicks, shares, and engagement. That's how Twitter and Facebook juice time on site. Another successful model is to nudge users towards more and more extreme content. That's why users watch over 1 billion hours on YouTube a day. "Time on site" skyrockets when users fall down a rabbit hole of extreme content; conspiracy theories work perfectly. That's why flat earthers and anti-vaxxers have experienced a resurgence in the internet age. For more examples and a better explanation of the above, check out Guillaume Chaslot's website AlgoTransparency and listen to Zeynep Tufecki's conversation with Ezra Klein.

Yes, algorithms manipulate users to stay online and that process is self-sustaining. Becca Lewis's research on "reactionary right" video creators revealed that not only are creators radicalizing audiences, but audiences radicalize creators too. As YouTube's algorithm knows too well, users want more and more extreme content--especially people who spend a lot of time getting information on YouTube. So if a creator wants to please his audience, like the algorithm, he too has to move towards the extremes.

In the book Networked Propaganda, Harvard researchers saw this radicalizing movement happen in more traditional forms of news as well. Their research showed that Brietbart's content was further right (read: more extreme) than Fox News's content and, they were getting more clicks and more shares--especially on immigration. As a result, Fox News tacked rightward to keep up. This could only happen in an age of social media drives audiences to websites, thereby affecting their bottom line. Of course, Fox's rightward tack is partially motivated by money. Even teenagers in Macedonia realized they could make a quick buck (sometimes 3K a day!) off traffic from social media by pumping out misinformation with click-bait headlines to Trump voters. 

In 2019, Gallup reported American's trust in mass media has dropped 8 points to an all time low of 32%. Among Republicans, trust dropped 18 points to 14%. This lack of trust in the mass media is most pronounced in young people. Perhaps that's partially why 94% of 18-24 year-olds use YouTube daily (Pew) and 59% of Gen Zers cite YouTube as their preferred learning tool (Mary Meeker). Perhaps needless to say, teenagers are at the forefront of this algorithmic radicalization.

Do our boys fall down algorithmic rabbit holes of extreme content? Yes and yes. If you want to know more about how, I highly suggest this thread. Seriously, read it. What it fails to mention is where our teenage boys first find media that pushes them to believe, say or do something "edgy" or anti-pc. In my experience as an educator, that most frequently happens 1) via gaming videos on Twitch or YouTube including the corresponding comments section (and chat apps like Discord) and/or 2) via political videos or podcasts on YouTube. Both Guillaume Chaslot and the Berkman-Klein Center have shown YouTube's tendency to push users towards far-right videos and conspiracy theories. Zeynep Tufecki proved that even watching a Hillary Clinton video inspires YouTube to start recommending Trump videos and eventually far-right content. Then, as the thread above explains so well, once our boys parrot something they hear in this space and get push-back from a parent, teacher, or peer, it often pushes them further into the media diet that prompted them to say/do something inappropriate and down the rabbit holes that algorithms feed them.

For example, the most famous gaming streamer on YouTube is Pewdiepie. He recommends anti-Semitic channels and has purposely provoked critics by doing a Nazi "heil" and using Fiverr to get people to hold up an egregiously anti-Semitic sign (Vox). The way algorithms work, if Pewdiepie gets even a small percentage of his 100+ million subscribers to click on these other channels, YouTube begins to connect them and recommend these channels to Pewdiepie subscribers even if they don't take him up on his recommendations. Connecting accounts and videos like this creates the network of edgy (to say the least) content recommended to our teenagers. For older males, Joe Rogan's podcast might be the trigger that connects listeners to alt-right leaders like Alex Jones and Jordan Peterson--both guests on Rogan's show.

I assume most educators, and very few administrators, have no idea what algorithmic extremism is, let alone how it works on our students. Hopefully, this article gives us enough background to begin discussing this issue and bringing it into our curriculum. In order to address these problems, we must lead discussions with our teenagers about their media diet and it's crucial that we are informed, honest, and open. We should identify and empower student leaders who will act as upstanders in the face of the negatives in this space. Finally, we must emphasize do's over don'ts and positives over negatives in order to avoid pushing students away from us and towards internet communities that don't share our values. Obviously, this will be challenging, but we're educators, and none of us want to relinquish our responsibility to impart knowledge and values in our students to internet celebrities or to algorithms.