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Safe spaces: Where should the line of censorship be drawn?

Are university safe spaces killing intellectual growth?

ALICE DREGER: None of us want a learning environment where we feel threatened. So, for example, I don't want to have to be learning in an environment where there are people with semi-assault rifles around me. I don't want to be learning in an environment where I have somebody who's openly misogynistic and yelling misogynistic slurs at me all the time. So all of us want safe spaces for learning. That's not unusual, it's not a bad thing. The question is: where do we put the borders on that? And in some circumstances in universities we've reached the point where we're so dedicated to the idea of making sure everybody feels absolutely comfortable that we've shut down some people's ability to speak and to think and to go beyond where comfort zones may be, and that's where it becomes a real problem. So it is not the case that universities should be places where you feel comfortable all the time. Intellectually we're supposed to be uncomfortable; that's how we grow. As one of my graduate school professors said to me, "If you haven't changed your mind lately, how do you know it's working?" And I thought that was a really good way to think about it. He said that to me when I was stuck in a particular idea and I wasn't budging and he thought I was being obstinate—and I was—and I started thinking, "Well, maybe changing your mind isn't a bad thing."

But what's happening on a lot of university campuses is the notion you come with your preexisting beliefs about your identity, about the world, and no one is supposed to question that. And I think that's very problematic. For example, people say "Well we don't want right-wing people on campus." I do! I want everybody on campus! I want everybody having the same educational opportunities and I want the opportunity to actually have real conversations about different points of view. Getting them out in the open, airing them, being able to have conversations, arguments, thinking about data, thinking about evidence, thinking about histories of justice—it allows us to have those conversations in a way that I think has integrity and honesty and gets us somewhere.

So if people have the attitude some people are allowed on campus, some people are not, some people are allowed to speak, some people are not, that doesn't really get us forward. Certainly it is the case we should not allow people to openly abuse each other verbally in ways that are profound. So for example, using the N-word, for example, but beyond that I think we have to have a lot of generosity in terms of allowing people to air ideas and giving everybody time to do that so that we can have meaningful education.

So this oversimplification of history, this sort of idea of "everybody is good" or "everybody is evil" as opposed to "there are some people who are kind of nasty but did some useful work, there are some people who are good but did some terrible things."

Trying to inject some of that subtlety and thinking historically, thinking empirically would be a heck of a lot better than doing simplistic identity politics where everybody gets devil horns or an angel's halo, and you account for that based on current ideas of what's a good identity and what's a bad identity. It's not a good way of thinking.

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Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.

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Women today are founding more businesses than ever. In 2018, they made up 40% of new entrepreneurs, yet in that same year, they received just 2.2% of all venture capital investment. The playing field is off-balance. So what can women do?

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Why ‘Christian nationalists’ are less likely to wear masks and social distance

In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Coronavirus
  • A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
  • The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
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No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

Image: USGS - public domain
Strange Maps
  • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
  • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
  • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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