by Susan Dugan
Volunteering with juvenile delinquents while in college kindled Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark’s passion for helping young people. In time, her passion evolved into a desire to …
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by Susan Dugan
Volunteering with juvenile delinquents while in college kindled Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark’s passion for helping young people. In time, her passion evolved into a desire to help youth find their voices and enter into respectful dialogue around social and political change. “I’ve always been interested in young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and how they can use media to make a difference in their own lives and their communities,” says the Chair of the University of Denver’s Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies. “We tend to think of young people as needing to have it all together before they can participate, but most young people I’ve known are ignited by the opportunity to feel they can make a difference.”
The Buffalo, New York, native earned a PhD in media studies at CU Boulder, where she served as an assistant research professor. There she and other colleagues formed a large research team that analyzed the media use of diverse families from across the United States. The study results were subsequently published in the book Media, Home and Family, in 2004; some said the study will become a classic in the field. Dr. Clark joined the DU faculty nine years ago.
About six years ago Dr. Clark began offering workshops at local high schools on cyberbullying and internet safety. While teaching one such workshop at South High School, Dr. Clark was inspired to find an additional way to collaborate with the school. “South has 70 different countries and more than 40 language groups represented. People who come from new immigrant communities go there because it has the largest English-language learners program in Denver Public Schools and very strong honors and academic programs. [South is] very intentional about building an inclusive, accepting community. I thought the University of Denver could be an important partner with South, while South could help the university as we’re thinking through what it means to be a community that embraces inclusive excellence.”
Former South Principal, Dr. Kristin Waters, welcomed the idea, and from the partnership the after-school Digital Media Club was born four years ago “as a way to help students use media to make a difference in their communities, focusing on a different topic each year,” Dr. Clark says. “Last year,” she adds, “we were making decisions about the annual club topic while the Ferguson riots were happening, so the students chose to look into the relationship between students of color and members of law enforcement.”
Throughout the 2014 school year South students visited and conducted videotaped interviews with police officers in their offices, and the officers visited South as well, with the goal being to encourage two-way dialogue. “We also collaborated with University of Denver students who studied relations between students and campus security,” says Dr. Clark. South and DU students then interviewed each other about their experiences as part of the larger project. At year-end, Dr. Clark, a DU colleague, a teacher at South and 22 South students wrote a report identifying project findings and gave it to the city, which was in the process of redrafting its officer training curriculum.
“The city ended up distributing [the findings] to stakeholders who work with young people and members of law enforcement,” says Dr. Clark. “The finding that stood out as most relevant for the development of the city’s curriculum was that usually when students interact with police, the police do the talking and the students do the listening. None of the students could recall a time when police had come to listen and learn from them. This was reinforced when we interviewed police, who assumed that they did not need to hear from young people about their experiences because [the officers], too, had once been teens, and thus they saw no need to receive ‘training.’ This reaffirmed students’ sense that police operate out of assumptions rooted in their own life experiences, which are often very different from those of immigrant young people and students of color. Several students spoke of the need to ‘give students the power and the voice.’ This specific finding resulted in the introduction of a segment on implicit bias that was introduced into the curriculum for law enforcement officials.”
During the club’s recorded interviews, immigrant students shared experiences of feeling misunderstood by police officers, and officers shared their viewpoints. “At first there was a lot of fear that there would be adversarial fighting, but the project really demonstrated that just by getting into the same room and talking as people, [both sides] could find some points of agreement,” says Dr. Clark. She adds both parties “still find some points of disagreement, but [they can] be much more respectful toward one another and learn something that was really helpful for the community overall.”
In all, the experience opened up new possibilities for South High School students. “It was very important to put this in a kind of narrative that, yes, we live in a society that has these structural forces, but [individuals] can make a difference,” Dr. Clark says. “Several young people gained a better sense of themselves as change agents. They started out interested, but that’s different from thinking ‘I can participate in making things better.’ I think that’s what all young people need.”
Her most recent book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age—an effort widely praised by publications such as Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Contemporary Sociology—examines the role social media now plays in shaping young people’s personas. The book offers counselors and parents practical strategies for helping youth navigating today’s new digital waters and sprang from interviews Dr. Clark conducted with parents of children navigating the tween, or preteen, years. The book’s title is a pun on the title of the movie The Parent Trap, “and also,” says Dr. Clark, “wouldn’t it be ideal if they actually had a parent app I could check to see if I really should be getting my child a cell phone now,” she adds, laughing. The movie is the classic comedic look at the fine line parents must walk when allowing their children a little autonomy in the world, and though the movie’s crisis is compelling, Dr. Clark feels that the stakes today are higher. In The Parent App, Dr. Clark says, “I talk about how much more work there is now for parents. We thought technology would make things so much easier, but actually it makes [life] more complicated because of the emotional work.”
The reality of rapidly evolving technology results in a constant juggling act in which parents must constantly weigh costs and benefits. Dr. Clark interviewed numerous families who perform this act every day. “One single mom told me,” says Dr. Clark, “she’d come home one night exhausted from work and her ex-husband had purchased a playstation for her two kids. Should she pull them away from the game to help her make dinner and get organized, or just let them play so she could get everything ready and have a quiet moment? Many parents have demanding jobs and a lot of flux in their lives. Technology can provide something at home for children to do where parents feel they are safe, but the parent has to assess how much energy they have if they want to provide an alternative.”
Parents find the need to constantly monitor what their child is doing time- and guilt-inducing, Dr. Clark has found. “That’s an extension of this hyper-parenting period we’re in, where there’s a tendency to think that we as parents are responsible for our children to such an extent that if we let them waver a little off course, they could suffer consequences. We do see a lot of stories about cyber bullying or abduction, but my studies and others I’ve read show parents tend to be much more anxious about predators than anything based on actual risk. Predation and kidnapping happen much more frequently among family members than through the internet. It’s a serious concern but out of proportion to the actual risk.”
A chapter The Parent App on cyber bullying reads as a cautionary tale for parents about what not to do. “It’s an extreme case where a mom inserts herself into a cyber bullying instance in a way that turns out really badly,” says Dr. Clark. “It’s important to read the cues with our own kids, sympathize and be there to help problem solve, but that’s very different from jumping in, which can really backfire. Young people are trying to negotiate social relationships and often misread or escalate things to the point that most people who feel they have been bullied have also been a perpetrator.”
So, what’s a concerned parent to do? “In the book I talk about how some families embrace what I call ‘respectful connectedness,’” she says. “That strategy works in a lot of family situations and economic backgrounds. If families emphasize using technology to respectfully connect with each other and others in their community, that is something young people will take with them.”
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