The Potential Issues Social Media May Have on Children

If my wife and I have children someday, one of my roles as a father will be a social media watchdog. I use the term “social media” to refer to any kind of technology that enables communication and interaction with others, be it Internet, web or mobile.

Right now, there isn’t a whole lot of research or literature on the psychological impact of the Internet and mobile technologies on children. We are already seeing some of the effects though. I’ve seen nieces touch a TV screen, expecting it to be a touch screen. I’ve seen nephews expect instant gratification as quickly as an instant message. I’ve seen friends’ children using a web search to replace their memory of basic facts.

And, I can’t lie – to some extent, I’ve done some of this too. But at least I’m aware of this and try not to let this become a handicap. For young children, however, they don’t have this awareness yet. Such behaviors will shape their entire futures.

Since I haven’t found a single source of the potential issues a child may face when using social media, I decided to amass this list. I’m planning on using this list as a guide for what I may have to teach my children one day. They probably won’t encounter all of these, hopefully, but as a parent, I’d rather be prepared than not.

Over-sharing
The act of publishing too much information about oneself online. There’s a fine line between appropriate sharing and over-sharing. Where that line lies will be a judgement call for each family. At a minimum, I would think child safety is a great line not to cross. There is software for parents that monitors their children’s social media usage as a way of watching out for this too.
Privacy issues
Unintentional leaks of your private information to the public. This is in contrast to over-sharing, which is the intentional sharing of your private information. Some organizations may alter their privacy policies, or have weak ones to begin with, putting your private data at risk. The best way to avoid this is to assume that whatever you put on the web will be public one day.
Cyber bullying
An extension of bullying, except done online, where taunts and insults can be anonymous, multiplied, amplified, and remain around for a long time, if not forever. When talking about bullying, it may be a good idea to discuss how to deal with both real-life and online bullying, both as a potential bully and the target of a bully.
Child predators
Malicious adults who prey on unsuspecting young children. Fortunately, cyber-crime departments of the law enforcement are getting better at nailing these people, but it’s still a concern. Since these predators don’t just operate online, talks about stranger safety should encompass both real-life and Internet interactions.
Computer security
Malicious software that can be accidentally downloaded and installed, like viruses and worms. Some teens may be more tech-savvy than their parents and will know all about this already, but young children may not. Anti-virus software isn’t enough; education on how to keep a clean system is also necessary. This includes Internet security issues, such as phishing and insecure public wifi hotspots.
Social engineering
Malicious attempts at tricking someone through some kind of social interaction (email, IM chat, text message, face-to-face interaction, etc) to gain access to his/her information. Think of it like a con job, only with social media technology. A healthy level of skepticism and common sense may help, for both children and parents.
Internet addiction
An intense desire to be on the Internet, even at the detriment of the other aspects of one’s life: health, relationships, social maturity, etc. There is still much debate over whether or not this is clinically a real addiction, but overusing anything is never a good thing. This can include the social media, the web, video games, and even mobile devices.
Erroneous information
Data that is intentionally misleading or unintentionally incorrect. Don’t trust everything you see on the web. To be safe, always go to verified sources or double-check the information. Some older school-aged children seem to be aware of this, but younger children – and parents – may not be.
Adult activities
Any kind of media portraying adults in sexual acts. It is surprisingly easy to find porn on the web. Unless you have a parental filter, your children will inevitably encounter it one day, whether it be intentionally on a porn site or unintentionally in a random video chat. Perhaps the best a parent can hope for is that their children will have a healthy & appropriate sexual education.
Illegal activities
Actions that break the law. The Internet makes many things surprisingly easy to do, like ordering illegal weapons, hacking into a federal computer system, or unknowingly breaking a foreign law. Children may assume that because something is easy and possible, it’s also acceptable and legal. It may not be.
Hate groups
Organizations that exist primarily to evangelize their intense dislike for a particular group of people. Such groups often thrive online. Children may need to be educated about the existence of such groups, especially if they may be influenced by one, or are the target of one.
Proper grammar and spelling
Forgetting or not learning proper grammatical constructs and word spellings. It’s quicker to type in shorthand than full sentences. Some technologies, like SMS and Twitter, even have character restrictions, further encouraging the use of shorthand. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man who’s arguing that grammar & spelling is going downhill, but parents may want to keep an eye on this nonetheless.
Profanity
Words that are generally considered to be impolite and unacceptable for children. Though there are many child-safe sites out there, lots of blogs – including mine, I should say – contain profanity. Parental Internet filters will block sites with profanity in them.
Mean behavior
Words from people designed to create ill will. This, of course, is something children will face in real-life also, though misunderstandings and miscommunications are more common on the Internet. What is curt to one person is rude to another. Tempers can also run high and inhibitions low. This may be an issue for children who may be overly sensitive or insensitive.
International interactions
Encounters with people of cultures foreign to those of your family. Since the Internet is international, children may come across languages, behaviors and mannerisms from people of other cultures. This is a good thing and may provide an opportunity for a parent to teach their children about geography and other cultures, though misunderstandings and miscommunications may occur.
Dimished social connectedness
A decrease in the ability to relate to people due to heavy Internet usage. As a potential consequence of Internet addiction, some studies have reported children saying they feel alone and secluded when not using social media. Being without an Internet connection led to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety. Others have reported a decrease in stranger empathy. Much research still needs to be done on this topic, however.

Again, this is only a swag at a list of potential issues a child may face when using social media technologies. I don’t think technology is inherently harmful. Nor do I intend to frighten parents and make it sound like the Internet is rife with problems. There are a lot of amazing advances coming from technology that will help children, such as education technologies, information access, international awareness, etc.

This list is an attempt to prepare myself for how I may need to educate my children. As with everything in life, there is always the potential to misuse social media technologies in harmful ways. By understanding what those may be, I hope to become a better-educated parent.

What do you think of this list? Did I miss anything? Is an item here really not a big deal? I would love to know what you think; all suggestions welcome. Thanks!

On Being a Social Media Watchdog

When my wife and I have kids, we decided that one of my tasks as a father will be a social media watchdog. That means monitoring our children’s social media usage and staying up on the latest & greatest Internet, web and mobile technologies that may cross their paths.

I love social media. You’ll find me on practically all of the popular services, and many of the newer ones still in “beta.” I publish frequently and share generously. But I do so with a careful eye. At least, I do now.

Way back when the word “blog” was still “web log,” I had this site. I called these writings my “Rambles.” Although most topics were personal essays that covered events in my life, many were works of fiction and some were opinion pieces & rants. It was through one of these opinion pieces that I stupidly discussed a personal issue of a friend of mine.

The friend read the piece, sent me a painful email, and I lost that friendship.

It was a hard lesson in sharing over the web. One that I will never forget; one that I will definitely teach my children someday.

Nowadays, sharing over the web is a lot more complex. Back when I started, there were no such things as privacy filters. If you published it, anyone could eventually find it (unless it was password-protected, which few did).

With the rise of social networking sites, the minutiae of who-sees-what has gotten a lot more complicated. Settings may be hard to find. You may forget to actively manage your privacy settings. Companies can change the options on you, accidentally or intentionally. Hackers could break into your account. And companies could shut down, taking all of your posts and shared items with them.

In other words, there is a thinly veiled belief of privacy that lulls some users into a false sense of security. The truth is, if you don’t want to share something with strangers, don’t post it on the web. Don’t share your password, don’t share your home address, don’t share geo-tagged photos your children or house. Abstinence is the best form of safety.

That isn’t to say sharing over the web is a bad thing. Far from it. Part of the grandeur of the web is all the fantastic things others have shared. Online communities can support, shelter and heal. News from across the world can reach you in mere seconds. Internet messaging can maintain relationships with acquaintances, people you might not otherwise talk to on a regular basis.

If you’re of the baby boomer generation, you probably remember the concept of a pen pal. For you youngun’s, that was someone your own age who lived far away, usually in another country. You and this person, this pal, would write letters to each other with a pen and paper. Hence, pen pal.

I had a pen pal once. Well, he was more like an email pal. We both were into heavy metal, so we’d exchange emails about the new bands and albums we discovered. He lived in Europe and told me all about the huge metal scene over there, while I filled him in on the American scene.

What I’ve learned over my years of Internet usage (and that encompasses the web, email, newsgroups, chat, etc) is the nuanced set of acceptable and safe behaviors. At least, I like to think so.

There’s really a range of acceptable behaviors, and it varies from online community to online community. What is acceptable in one is not in another. And even then, each individual has his/her own particular sensitivities. What offends one person may not offend another.

If that all sounds like quite a quagmire, consider all of the real-life social groups in which you belong. Your family, your classmates, your coworkers, etc. You probably have many circles of friends, each with its own set of acceptable behaviors and sensitivities. Same goes for the online world.

The big difference is you grow into each real-life social group slowly. You start with your family. Then grade school friends. Then high school friends. And so on.

Each of those groups grows with you. Each member goes through the same awkward lessons you do, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time. Each painful lesson teaches you and shapes your social maturity. You learn to understand social cues, vocal inflections, body language, slang, pop culture, etiquette, boundaries, etc.

For young children, this is especially important. The first social group – the family – provides them with a safe, nurturing environment in which to learn how to interact appropriately.

But what if you’re thrown into a world before you’re ready to deal with it?

In the online world, the members vary in social and emotional maturity. They aren’t necessarily in the same range as you. There are some social networks that restrict by age and geography, but the majority do not because they want more users through inclusiveness rather than tighter but smaller communities through exclusiveness.

Along those same lines, a child may interact with his/her family, relatives, family friends, and neighborhood friends in real life. As parents, you can control this. Again, there are some emerging social networks that offer this kind of control, but the majority do not. The general fear – and it’s a real fear – is of predators. Individuals who seek to do harm. There’s a range of this too, from bullying to abduction. All of it scary and all of it harmful.

Also, social feedback exists online, but immature outbursts and reactions are more permanent. Amongst a group of friends, poor behavior can be excusable. It may even stay within the group, if you’re lucky. On the Internet, such behavior could live forever and be found by future employers.

One last point. The lessons on the Internet come much faster. Real life interactions are limited by geography. Children can only interact with the people around them. One of the great things about the Internet is its expansive nature. But for a child who hasn’t yet gained a sense of emotional and social maturity, the volume of interactions – not to mention information – can be staggering.

This is just off the top of my head, of course. I’m not a child psychologist, digital sociologist, or even a “social media specialist.” I’m just a concerned guy who’s trying to anticipate the potential lessons I’ll have to teach about the emerging world of social media. My views may change as I educate myself, find actual research papers on these topics, talk to people way smarter than I, and, you know, have children.

I should also add that I love the possibilities that technology offers to future generations. My children will learn, know, and do things I cannot even begin to fathom. And I don’t want to hold them back at all; the last thing I want to do is shelter them. Life is not fair nor perfect; there are bad people out there, as well as good. A dad can only tell his kids so much before they stop listening to him.

The crux of it all is really emotional and social maturity. Having a healthy sense of self, empathy for others, and understanding of society is, in my opinion, the key for navigating the online world. Since the Internet can be a firehose, my role as a social media watchdog will be to tighten the nozzle and gently release it as my children become ready for more.

We Didn’t Start The Fire

“We didn’t start the fire.
It was always burning,
since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire.
No we didn’t light it,
but we tried to fight it.”
– B. Joel

I want to invent the Chill Pill. It’s a product many need, though not many would want. That means this product would be an utter failure. But still, I want to invent it.

Every time I watch the U.S. news, it seems like the world is falling apart. Reporters don’t say this outright, but they bombard viewers with murder after murder, travesty after travesty, horror after horror. It feels like we live in a dangerous society where death and tragedy is imminent.

I once read a story about a European tourist traveling through the U.S. While at this hotel, he turned on the TV to watch the local news. From the reports, he concluded that the city he was in was full of violence. However, the city he was in was one of the safest in the nation. The media was just doing what it always does – report on sensational deaths and traumatic crimes.

In such an environment, all the extreme emotions don’t surprise me at all. It’s a Chicken Little paradise here. Hypochondriacs are running the asylum.

It’s a fact that we are living in a safer time than ever before. Can you imagine your parents taking you as a kid to a public hanging? Or to participate in a public stoning? Or to watch someone being hung, drawn, and quartered?

There was a time where the men in a family had to carry a sword because raids and rape were common. Pestilence and starvation ravaged entire villages too. Before 1847, doctors didn’t know they should wash their hands after working with dead bodies. Can you imagine delivering a perfectly healthy baby, then to die from puerperal fever yourself? That was a regular occurrence in some hospitals.

Playing violent video games is one thing. Experiencing violence at your doorstep is another. Just ask any child living in a war-torn country or gang-ruled neighborhood.

Despite those current-day examples of violence, the majority of the U.S. populace does not live with such violence or crime every day. Yet, the news media portrays a very different picture. Even in an age of ambivalence towards advertising, people still tend to believe the media.

The Chill PillTM would combat the negative effects of media sensationalism. It would suppress the urge to stay at home for the rest of your life after watching how another family of three died in a car accident on your regular work commute route. Or the urge to avoid life-saving vaccinations after a celebrity claims it caused autism in her son.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, the Chill Pill is not marijuana, medicinal or otherwise. The core effects might be similar, though it would not carry the side effects of potential mental health issues and the munchies. My version of the Chill Pill wouldn’t, at least. Competitors would no doubt sprout.

It would be even better if such a product was not necessary and the news media shifted their reporting structure to a more balanced view. Alternative news sources such as Twitter and positive news sources such as the Good News Network, Happy News, and AOL’s Good News Now are all examples of the positive reporting that the traditional U.S. news media could adopt.

Then there’s Michael Moore’s assertion that the news media in Canada is much more tempered. In his documentary Bowling for Columbine, he features several Canadian news clips. Then he contrasts what he calls a climate of fear in the U.S. media to a more – for lack of a better word – chill climate in Canada.

I haven’t seen enough Canadian TV to verify this personally, though he makes an interesting assertion. If it’s true, the U.S. media has a working model they could easily emulate – our neighbors up north.

Unfortunately, I have a negative outlook on such a future. Perhaps I’m colored by all the negative news too, but I just don’t think these corporations would be able to change their structures. There’s too much company inertia, shareholder concern, operational overhead, and, of course, profits from the current status quo.

I don’t think any investor would read the Chill Pill’s business plan and see a bright future either. “The U.S. news media has created a climate of fear and fostered a sense of pessimism in the U.S. society. The Chill Pill would restore a sense of calmness and positivity and lead to a happier society.”

Yea, not a killer product. I think there’s a need, but not a want. That’s not a recipe for success. But still, sometimes after watching the news, I totally want to invent this.

Self-Kaizen

Kaizen is the Japanese word for “improvement.”

After World War II, consultants such as William Edwards Deming introduced production methods such as continuous improvement to Japan. In the 80’s, author Masaaki Imai wrote a book that coined the term “kaizen” as a management philosophy in the worldwide lexicon. Toyota is perhaps the most famous practitioner of kaizen, spurring many others, including their competitors Ford and General Motors, to adopt this philosophy.

There are five core principles to kaizen:

  • Teamwork. Everyone should be an effective and contributing member of their team.
  • Discipline. Everyone should uphold discipline in their work and themselves.
  • Morale. Everyone should strive to maintain a positive environment.
  • Suggestions. Everyone’s opinions and suggestions are considered and valued.
  • Quality circles. Everyone meets together in small groups to solve problems and promote innovative ideas.

This philosophy has worked well for Japan’s business community. Although Japan’s economic gains were erased with their asset price bubble collapse in the 90’s, and this philosophy has faded in popularity, at its core, it still remains an effective framework of product and service quality and efficiency.

I’ve long used the term “self-kaizen” to describe one of my life’s main tenants. As long as I can remember, I’ve always had the mindset of self-improvement through trial & error and the advice of others. I don’t know if this urge came from my parents, a teacher, or from within, but it’s always been there.

There are five core principles to self-kaizen:

  • Teamwork. In one’s growth, there are three stages: dependence, independence, and interdependence. The last involves knowing how to work well with others, since 1 plus 1 can equal 3 in effective teams and relationships.
  • Discipline. Personal discipline is the bedrock of any self-improvement regime. Changing oneself can be extremely hard work. Without discipline, there is no improvement.
  • Morale. The lens through which you view your life tints how you feel about it. No one is more responsible for your morale than you, so learning to control your expectations and viewpoint can go a great way in influencing your daily morale.
  • Suggestions. Everyone can teach you something, whether it is what to do, or what not to do. Always be open to the advice of others. Consider it all with an open mind, even though not all advice is relevant.
  • Quality circles. Your quality circles are your closest friends. They can give you unfettered, yet constructive feedback, if you’ve structured your friendships that way.

This philosophy has served me well. Mistakes are lessons learned. The people I meet are teachers. Life is my floor mat, absorbing my falls and giving me a chance to rebound and try again.

And that is self-kaizen. At least, until I experience an asset price bubble collapse or something.

The Geek-Turned-Player Theory

Being a self-admitted geek, I’ve known many other geeks in my life. I’ve seen some grow up and become successes. And I’ve seen some grow up and become, for lack of a better word, players. Dangerous players.

Not players in the sense of metrosexual predators or greased-up Jersey Shore rejects. These guys are more clandestine. Girls don’t suspect they’re in the clutches of such a geek-turned-player until, well, sometimes never.

First, some background.

A geek-turned-player (GTP) grows up as an unpopular teen. He is the typical nerd, dork, dweeb, pick your favorite insult. In a phase where fitting in is so crucial, they stick out like a limb with gangrene. Though many make it through as strong, self-confident adults, this can foment into a deep psychosis for a few.

This bitterness can evolve in many ways. Some embody the taunts and turn them into strengths, such the skinny nerd who grows up to be a muscle-bound guy. Others harbor the acrimony until the acids melt away their relationships. Some do both.

A GTP is the latter; he does both. He also turns rejections from girls into a dictum of life: he wants to be a guy who can “get” all the girls who’ve rejected him. As you can imagine, a layer of misogyny pervades their actions. They want to get those girls, or girls in general, and hurt them.

Ironically, they overtly state a hatred of players, the guys who can go to any bar or club and get a phone number as easily as a mosquito can feed in a nudist colony. GTPs see themselves as the antithesis of the traditional player.

“I would never have a one-night stand,” they declare. “I will always honor and respect women.” Therein lies the danger of a GTP. Not only are they shattering hearts like a player, but they are unaware of it.

How do they get from geeks to heart-shattering GTPs?

After college, they tend to do well in their careers. They become white-collar workers and executives in well-paying jobs. They date a few girlfriends along the way who imbue them with some fashion sense. They may even start exercising and getting fit. To look at them now, you would never know they were scrawny four-eyed nerds in high school. Now, they look like intelligent, respectful, well-paid knights in shining armor.

At this age, these traits start to attract women in numbers not before experienced by these geeks. Where girls once ignored them, women are now being drawn to them like ants to molasses. And here they sit, happy as anteaters.

Much of this happens to average geeks, regardless of their proclivities. All sorts of sociological and biological factors play into this phenomenon. Single women in their twenties or thirties tend to seek men who are stable, financially, emotionally, etc., even if they didn’t seek those factors when they were younger.

That’s how I’ve lucked out, at least. Go sociological & biological factors!

The GTP differs from the average geek in his behaviors after meeting a girl. The GTP, flush with the exhilaration of meeting a girl, starts to behave like a traditional player. Despite his proclaimed position on one-night stands, his qualms melt away in the heat of passion.

Then he does it again. And again. And again. He starts to realize his sexual prowess and magnetism and begins to flaunt it openly, oftentimes to the chagrin of his peers. He believes himself to be God’s Gift to Women: he has all the qualities of a traditional player, along with money, status, and success. What girl wouldn’t want him?

However, he still puts on a veneer of respect. His misogynic beliefs are well-hidden. Women see him as a nice guy, even months or years after he has broken their hearts.

For the unfortunate, this heartbreak is infinitely worse than being with a player, because of the emotional connection made. Indeed, the GTP’s armament includes psychological weapons such as long, deep conversations, the kind that make women think about marriage and children.

Breaking up with a deadbeat player is one thing, breaking up with a potential husband and father of your children is another.

Deep inside, the GTP doesn’t see himself as a player, however. He still harbors a resentment of players and sees his actions as innocent. This belief reinforces the effectiveness of his weapons. Those long, deep conversations, as they are happening, are earnest and from the heart.

So what changes the morning after? Something subconscious. A switch flips. The emotional connection from last night fades as the excitement of new prey emerges. As soon as another woman starts up a conversation, the previous one is forgotten.

For the goal isn’t to meet a woman and start a wonderful relationship. The goal is to meet women. And to see if he can “get” them. The exhilaration of each new encounter has become a drug.

This is something the GTP never experienced as a teen. He never got the intoxication of fleeting puppy love out of his system like others his age. While most of us are moving on in stable relationships, he is stuck. He is a late bloomer who is addicted to the high of new women.

I haven’t seen much written about this phenomenon before. I suspect it is, thankfully, rare. However, I’ve seen it enough times to discern to articulate this theory.

The popularization of geek culture may be partly responsible for the rise of the geek-turned-player. Or maybe it has always been around and I’ve only begun to notice it.

Whatever the case, the GTP is a dangerous animal on the dating scene. I’ve seen female friends unknowingly wrecked from them. I’ve seen colleagues & acquaintances evolve into GTPs themselves. The result is always disastrous, especially for the women they’ve left in their wake.

Beware the geek-turned-player.

The Danger of Extremists

“People who speak in absolutes absolutely bug me.”
– Me

I don’t take kindly to extremists. Especially those with a public platform. Such public speakers strive to polarize their listeners with provoking rhetoric. This can be dangerous in the minds of those who are easily influenced and in a position to inflict harm on others.

An extremist is a person who holds an extreme opinion to the point of disregarding facts that may refute the opinion or support a counter argument. The extremist will never admit this, of course. In that person’s mind, counter-arguments carry no weight and should be dismissed, no matter the strengths of the facts. Extremists may further harbor the paranoia that an opposing group released such facts as part of a conspiracy against the extremist’s point of view.

A person with a strong opinion differs from an extremist in the severity of the belief and the actions the extreme opinion propels. Strong opinions can ultimately be changed if there is enough supporting evidence to the contrary. Extreme opinions, by this definition, cannot, and may even be strengthened with fanatical zeal.

Many will argue with me about the danger of extremists. “What’s wrong with passionate devotion to a particular opinion,” they ask. “Without such passion, some of the world’s greatest art would not exist.” Neither would war, for that matter.

A stronger counter-argument is: “Humans are hard-wired for extreme opinions. It is in our nature.” That I cannot deny. It doesn’t change my opinion of extremists, but I realize it is futile to do much more than rant on my lowly website about them. And to avoid them, as I tend to do.

Another good counter-argument: “Isn’t this an extreme opinion against extremists?” Heh, funny. This opinion is not an extreme one. I don’t take kindly to extremists, but I do realize their contributions to society. Art is definitely one. Books, music, movies; some of the most moving creative works are born of intense passion.

The extremists I don’t like are those with a public platform and the desire to use their influence to inflict harm on others. History is littered with such examples. Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden are two infamous examples in the Western world. And unfortunately, I’m sure there will be many more in the future.

There are also many less heinous examples. Broadcast and cable television have given many the ability to reach millions in their own homes. The Internet has exponentially expanded that reach, though extremists on television still seem to have more influence than those on the Internet, for whatever reason. That will most certainly change in the future.

Bill O’Reilly is an easy example, though he would argue that he is not an extremist (or extreme conservative) and prefers to be labeled a “traditionalist.” He does have a public platform however: the O’Reilly Factor.

For better or worse, he is media savvy enough to know how to exploit this medium. The economics of television programs means those with the highest ratings stay on the air. In order to continue the survival of his show, he has to maintain high ratings. One of the most effective ways to do this is through sensationalism. And what is more sensational than a pundit shouting his polarizing views with fanatical zeal?

A show that carefully weighed both sides of an issue would not score high ratings, sadly. Most political issues are so complex that it would take hours to explain them all. No major media conglomerate would risk the loss of advertising revenue from such programming. (Thank goodness for NPR and PBS. Too bad more people don’t listen & watch them.)

Therefore, short sound bites about a particular political topic coupled with polarizing rhetoric is the best way to incite an audience and encourage them to tune in again and again. The end goal isn’t to disseminate the facts effectively; it is to cultivate a viewing audience.

Therein lies the danger of extremists. An extremist in isolation is not going to cause any harm, but an extremist with the ability to spread that opinion to millions could.

Let’s return to Bill O’Reilly again. In 2005, O’Reilly publicly denounced Dr. George Tiller on his television show. Dr. Tiller is a physician known for performing second and third trimester abortions. O’Reilly referenced the doctor as “Tiller the baby killer” multiple times across multiple shows. There is anecdotal evidence that this rhetoric may have influenced Dr. Tiller’s murder at the hands of Scott Roeder.

It isn’t fair to say O’Reilly directly led to Dr. Tiller’s death. The correlation is weak at best. But just as conservatives argue that heavy metal music and video game violence leads to violent behavior amongst teens, many have drawn a connection between O’Reilly’s words and Roeder’s actions.

Roeder has a history of mental illness. At 20, he was diagnosed with possible schizophrenia. His ex-wife believed he was suffering from bipolar disorder. He has also been involved with extremist organizations such as the Sovereign Citizen Movement (an anti-government organization) and the Army of God (an anti-abortion organization that believes murdering doctors that perform abortions is justifiable homicide).

It is fair to say that Roeder has a predisposition for violence in line with his extreme views. It is also fair to say that David Leach, another Army of God member and publisher of the anti-abortion newsletter Prayer & Action News (another example of an extremist with a public platform) had more influence on Roeder’s state of mind than O’Reilly did. But unfortunately for O’Reilly, he is more famous than Leach and therefore more influential on the nation as a whole. This is why he caught a lot of criticism for his statements, especially calling the doctor “Tiller the baby killer.”

In my opinion, no, O’Reilly did not directly contribute to Roeder’s murderous actions. But his influential voice did amplify Tiller’s demonization. Even journalist Gabriel Winant asserted that O’Reilly’s anti-Tiller tirades contributed to an atmosphere of violence around the doctor.

The influence of public extremists is strong, much stronger than many realize. With more and more Americans turning to commercials (yes, it’s true) and television shows for their political education, programs like The O’Reilly Factor and The Daily Show (I’m not biased here, even Jon Stewart holds tremendous and potentially dangerous sway) are becoming mouthpieces for political parties, whether they like it or not.

Since both sides resort to short, catchy sound bites instead of verbose, drawn-out arguments, the viewing public is in danger of falling sway to extremists with public platforms — especially those who are easily influenced and in a position to inflict harm on others.

Premarital Counseling

I’m getting married!

My fiancee and I just attended our first premarital counseling session the other day. We don’t have any particular problems or issues. Premarital counseling is just something that is recommended to all engaged couples. It brings up common problem areas for couples, such as finances, children, in-laws, etc. These are all topics we’ve discussed before, but we figured it wouldn’t hurt to try this out.

The verdict from our first session: We are an awesome couple! We have lots of the traits of long-lasting relationships. Woo hoo!

Okay, okay, enough bragging.

The session taught us some interesting relationship concepts. They may seem obvious when you read them, but it’s fascinating to think of them within the frameworks they provide.

The Five Love Languages

According to Dr. Gary Chapman, author of the book, “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts,” there are five basic ways that people give and receive love:

  1. Words of Affirmation – Offering unsolicited compliments and saying affectionate things
  2. Quality Time – Sharing your time and undivided attention
  3. Receiving Gifts – Giving thoughtful, meaningful gifts
  4. Acts of Service – Helping out around the house and doing thoughtful deed
  5. Physical Touch – Holding hands, giving hugs, and offering physical affection

Each of us has a preferred way of showing our love for someone. At the same time, each of us has a different way of interpreting love from our partner. Happy couples tend to be ones that communicate their love in ways that match their partners’ preferences. Fortunately, these methods of communication can be taught and learned.

For example, if the husband tends to demonstrate love through giving gifts and the wife interprets love as words of affirmation, then the mismatch may cause the wife to think the husband does not love her.

Simultaneously, if the wife prefers to show her love with words (sometimes, but not always, the way we interpret love is the same as the way we communicate it), while the husband interprets love through physical touch, then the husband may think the wife does not love him.

This tragic mismatch can be salvaged by understanding how each person prefers to give and receive love. The husband can save his money and resolve to compliment her and say “I love you” more often. The wife can add hugs and shoulder rubs to her repertoire of love.

The Circle of Care

According to Dr. Carmen Knudson-Martin and Dr. Anne Rankin Mahoney, authors of the book, “Couples, Gender, and Power: Creating Change in Intimate Relationships,” there are four areas where gender and power issues can effect relationships:

  1. Emotional Attunement – How in tune, sympathetic, and empathic one is with the other
  2. Influence – How much one is able to change the other’s mind
  3. Vulnerability – How much one is able to show and express vulnerability with the other
  4. Relationship Responsibility – How much one takes responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationship

Typically, men are not taught to be emotionally attuned, show vulnerability, or take much responsibility in maintaining relationships. By that same token, women are typically taught to let men influence the decisions in the relationship. Although these are just stereotypes, more often than not, these gender roles persist.

Problems arise because the burden of maintaining the relationship falls upon the woman. This can lead to anger and resentment over time. Long-lasting relationships tend to have a balance of these four areas, according to Dr. Knudson-Martin and Dr. Mahoney’s research.

This means husbands should strive to understand and be sympathetic to their wives, especially when their wives just want to vent and not problem-solve (which men tend to do whenever they hear a problem). Husbands should also feel comfortable sharing their emotions and asking for help.

At the same time, wives should share in making decisions for the couple, speaking their mind with the understanding that the husband will listen and respect their opinions.

Premarital Counseling

Some of you are nodding your heads as you read this. Others are scratching your chins and going, “I don’t know about that…”

I’m no marriage expert. This is just what we’ve been told. They are interesting frameworks for long-lasting relationships and marriages, however, and definitely have merit. And I’m not just saying that because my fiancee and I share many of these traits (we are so awesome! Woo hoo!).

Okay, okay, enough with the bragging. We’ve still got more sessions to take and a lot more to learn. I should see how the rest of the premarital counseling sessions go before I boast anymore.

Turns to fiancee. Winks. Woo hoo!

The Drama of People When You’re a Pet Owner

I love dogs. I grew up with dogs, have a dog right now, and would love it if I could raise my kids with dogs around because they make great companions and can teach them about being responsible when they’re older.

I also believe that pets are pets. They are a part of the family, but they are not human and it can be dangerous to treat them as such. Doing so can lead to the kinds of behavior you see on The Dog Whisperer. In my opinion, the better you understand a dog’s psychology (and realize it is not the same as human psychology), the happier the dog will be.

Not everyone shares this opinion, of course. There are extremes along the pet sentiment spectrum — those that hate pets a little too much and those that love pets a little too much. Bewilderingly, I’ve been running into these extremes lately.

The Pet Haters

These people hate pets. They may have a traumatic history with a dog or cat, were raised to be weary of pets, or have a genuine disdain for animals. As you can imagine, they typically aren’t vegetarians. At least, I haven’t met any vegetarian Pet Haters yet.

Around these people, you can’t bring your pets. They’ll shriek, shrill, and shrink back in horror. For all the cuteness you think your furry little friend has, they’ll see nothing but four legs of unpredictable fearsomeness. Even tame, well-behaved pets cannot break their shell of hate.

Some Pet Haters have an additional annoying trait: They go out of their way to reveal the extent of their hate. Woe to the dog owner who crosses the path of a Pet Hater while on an afternoon walk. The vitriol from such Pet Haters can be caustic.

The Pet Parents

These people love pets. They consider pets to be their actual children, sans the college education bill. The entire pet industry has thrived on such consumers, especially luxury services such as pet spas, pet restaurants, and pet airlines (it’s true, it exists!).

Michael Schaffer’s book “One Nation Under Dog” discusses how pets have become substitutes for children in millions of households. They could be single and only have pets to come home to, be married and cannot have children, or have children and give their pets the majority of their attention. These pet owners even refer to themselves as the Mommy or Daddy to their pets. (Note: My fiance and I use this label for ourselves in regards to our dog, though we don’t honestly view him as our child.)

Some Pet Parents have an additional annoying trait: They go out of their way to share the extent of their love. If you don’t care for your pet in a manner congruent to the love their lavish on their pets, they will brand you a bad, bad Mommy or Daddy.

The Pet Experts

There is a third dimension to this pet sentiment spectrum. These people love pets, but essentially regard them as animal companions that require strict rules and training. You’ll know you are in the presence of a Pet Expert if you catch one quoting Cesar Milan. (Note: I know I’ve done this a few times and am deeply, deeply sorry for my arrogance. I’ll never do it again.)

You’ll find that some Pet Experts may actually be very well-read on the subject of pets. They may be veterinarians, animal control officials, or animal shelter administrators. But just as easily, you’ll find novices that watch only The Dog Whisperer for their canine proficiency.

Some Pet Experts have an additional annoying trait: They go out of their way to pronounce their expertise. If they see you holding the leash incorrectly, you’d better stand back so their angry spittle doesn’t get in your eye. Watch out for Pet Parent / Pet Expert hybrids. Those are the worst.

How to Handle These Extremists

You’ve probably noticed a common theme here. Within each of these types exists people who go out of their way to tell you their opinions. As you may surmise, that is the crux of the problem. Everyone has and is entitled to an opinion on pet ownership. The problem arises when those people express their contempt for others who don’t share their opinions.

I don’t have any contempt for them as individuals. But I do have contempt for their arrogant behavior.

The same patterns exist for children as well. If you are a new parent, I’m sure you’ve encountered people who hate children, people who love their children to the point of spoiling them, and people who believe they know better than others on child care.

I’m sure you also have no problem with their views. It’s when they get in your face and shout their views at you that it becomes unnecessary drama.

So what can you do? I know of some who are always up for a good fight and push right back. I’ve seen more than a few heated arguments at dog parks to know these are fairly common.

I’ve tried that tactic. It only left me frustrated and my day ruined. The argument had no winners, only two people who walked away angry the other person didn’t share their opinions.

So what can you do? I say imagine that person in their underwear. Or a clown suit. Or in a hot dog costume being chased by hungry dogs. Laugh at their ridiculousness and walk away. You’ll never be able to change an extremist’s mind. Trying to do so is like doing math with bubblegum; it’s impossible.

Then go home and play with your pet. Pet therapy is the best cure for unnecessary drama.

Mental Shortcuts

Life is more complex than you realize. This is not your fault. If you were to constantly think about the world’s full complexities, you would go mad.

In order to cope with life’s complexities, the mind creates mental shortcuts. Take the simple decision of choosing which toothpaste to purchase.

Do you know how many choices of toothpaste exist? Lots. Head to your local pharmacy and peruse the dental care isle. You will be greeted by all types of toothpaste with varying mixes of components in a wide range of packages manufactured by a dizzying array of companies.

How do you know which is the best to purchase? Or the most cost-effective?

You could research each one. Look at the components each uses, study scientific papers on toothpaste, and read studies on their effectiveness. With new studies being done all the time, you would have to keep up constantly. Or you could conduct tests of your own, buying new tubes and retesting each time a new product is released.

Now multiply this with other household items. Shampoo. Soap. Laundry detergent. Milk. Bread. Salt. Pepper. Batteries. Light bulbs. Screwdrivers. Toilet paper. Towels. Bedding. I could go on and on and on.

For something as relatively trivial as toothpaste or toilet paper, the amount of time and money spent on such research would outweigh the benefits of choosing the absolute best choice. Common yet inexpensive commodities such as these just don’t justify such a mental investment.

Therefore, we take a mental shortcut and purchase a familiar brand. Or whatever is on sale. Or whoever’s package attracts our eye. A good enough choice is, well, good enough.

Mental shortcuts aren’t used for all purchases, however. Buying a house or car would indeed justify such a mental investment. Expensive quality items can be had cost-effectively if enough research is done.

Mental shortcuts also don’t just apply to commerce. Prejudice is a mental shortcut. When meeting someone new, your mind instantly creates an impression based on that person’s appearance and external factors, such as situation, context, etc. Your mind does this whether you are conscious of it or not. Factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, clothing, and body language are all considered.

There is even evidence that your impression within the first minute can be fairly accurate. A study by psychology professors Nalini Ambady & Robert Rosenthal found that strangers can provide accurate evaluations of high school teachers after watching “thin slices” of their performances. These thin slices were anywhere from six to thirty seconds.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, the term thin slicing will sound familiar. He also cites a study by John Gottman who demonstrated that he was able to watch a fifteen-minute thin slice of a married couple and predict the likelihood of divorce in fifteen years with 90% accuracy.

Robert Cialdini’s book Influence even articulates how mental shortcuts can be used against consumers by salespeople. For instance, in certain circumstances, consumers who commit to buying something are more likely to honor that commitment, even when the price is raised at the last minute. Once they have made that commitment, their minds automatically work towards the conclusion of the transaction, even if some of the factors change.

Another consequence of a mental shortcut is the polarization of beliefs. It is easier to take a simplified, extreme stance on a belief than to study and understand its full, detailed spectrum.

The political landscape in the US has recently been reduced to Red States and Blue States. This polarization makes it easier for voters and politicians to declare their allegiances, as demonstrated in the documentary, Split: A Divided America. Red or Blue. Republican or Democrat. Conservative or liberal.

But issues are never black or white. They are shades of gray. Let’s take business regulation as an example. At the extremes, history has shown that a completely hands-off approach generally leads to monopolies, while a completely hands-on approach generally leads to overregulation. The healthiest choice would seem to be somewhere in the middle. But within typical political rhetoric, if you don’t side with an extreme, you are considered a weak politician.

However, such polarized viewpoints win votes. Correction: polarized viewpoints enhanced by memorable sound bites win votes. Politicians are learning to be more media savvy because their campaigns are relying more on their funding prowess. More funding equals more ads, which equals more sound bites, which equals potentially more votes.

Why? Because most Americans are too busy to follow every political discussion closely nowadays. The topics are too complex. Therefore, they use the mental shortcut of gathering information whenever it happens to appear to them – such as in advertising. Another unfortunate consequence of a necessary mental shortcut.

This doesn’t mean mental shortcuts are harmful. Without them, you’d spend all of your time trying to decide which toothpaste to buy. Or whether a salesperson is trying to cheat you. Or whether your political affiliations accurately effect your true beliefs. Ignorance of the details, especially in a busy world, can be bliss.

However, too much reliance on mental shortcuts can make you a pawn to those who know how to exploit you. And exploit you they will. They will take advantage of the efficiency of a mental shortcut to influence your sale, vote, or decision. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Knowledge can be your defense, as well as an awareness of mental shortcuts.

Like Cialdini’s book writes, and as G.I. Joe says, “And knowing is half the battle.”

How to Live a Long, Happy Life

I intend on living a long, happy life.

It would be cool to be a great-grandparent, for instance. I’ve also got many things I want to do. Write books, learn new things, start businesses and non-profits, help my community. So many plans, so little time.

Age is not the limiting factor. Health is.

So how can I live a long and happy life? Dan Buettner, a National Geographic writer, believes he knows the answer. He founded the organization Quest Network, Inc. to conduct a study of “Blue Zones” – regions of the world where there are sizable populations that live active lives past one hundred years of age.

There are currently five known Blue Zones in the world:

  • Sardina, Italy
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Loma Linda, CA, USA
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • Icaria, Greece

Buettner and his organization studied these regions and discovered four key traits that all share, regardless of geography, culture, religion, or other factors.

  1. Move Naturally
  2. Right Outlook
  3. Eat Wisely
  4. Connect

Move Naturally

People living in Blue Zones don’t run marathons or lift heavy weights in gyms. They don’t sit in front of the TV or computers a lot either. Instead, they take a lot of walks. They climb up stairs. They hike up mountains. They even tend gardens, which require daily manual labor.

The Sardinians live on hillsides. So to get around, many walk up and down these hills all the time, even those in their eighties. Many Okinawans maintain personal gardens that they cultivate with pride. It’s not uncommon to see elders plowing and raking and pulling out weeds.

The trick is to do something active every day that you enjoy. That way, being active isn’t a chore; it is something you look forward to. And that’s why it works.

If you love doing cardio at the gym, then more power to you. Otherwise, take a walk around the block. Walk to the local grocery store instead of driving. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Take a parking spot further away from the entrance of the mall so you have to walk a bit. Play sports with friends. Play the Nintendo Wii. Do something active everyday.

Right Outlook

Blue Zone inhabitants maintain a healthy perspective on life. They take time to slow down and relax from their hectic schedules. They use healthy outlets to vent their stress. They take problems in stride.

It’s not that they live boring, unexciting lives. Loma Linda is the home of a large medical university and medical community. Being a doctor is far from relaxing. The majority of these residents – those that regularly live long, active lives, at least – are also Seventh-day Adventists, a Christian denomination. Their religion aids in their ability to find peace with their frustrations.

Aside from mechanisms to dispel stress, Blue Zone inhabitants also deeply believe they have a purpose in life. That purpose could be as small as the Okinawan fisherman who sees his purpose is to fish so he can feed his family, or the Okinawan grandmother who knows her purpose is to care for her great-great-grandchildren. Religion also imbues a deep sense of purpose to Seventh-day Adventists.

Many don’t retire. They keep on doing what they enjoy doing, because they believe it is their purpose, their reason to get up every day.

Look for healthy outlets for your stress. Some use exercise, some take walks, and some create art to find relief. For others, it’s spirituality, religion, or their family and community.

A sense of purpose is also equally important. If you don’t have a reason to wake up every day and stay healthy, then find one. Spirituality and religion fill this hole for many. Family and community fill this for others. Still others find their purpose in their work or art. And sometimes your purpose isn’t bestowed upon you; it is something you go out and determine for yourself.

Eat Wisely

Those in Blue Zones eat healthy food in moderation. By healthy food, I mean their diets include a lot of vegetables and little processed food. Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarians. Okinawans eat lots of fresh fish. Sardinians consume homemade food. Each community has a different meal mix, though all contain a lot of vegetables and little processed food.

By moderation, I mean they don’t overeat. They don’t serve huge, American-sized portions. The Okinawans even eat from small plates as a means to minimize overeating. Others take breaks between servings. Since it takes several minutes before the feeling of satiation hits your stomach, taking a break can curb the amount you eat.

Include more vegetables in your diet. Decrease the amount of processed food and fast food from your daily intake as much as possible, or remove it altogether. You don’t need vitamin supplements as long as you eat a wide variety of vegetables, grains, and meats.

And perhaps even more importantly, reduce your portion sizes. Eat from small bowls. Take breaks between servings. You may find yourself feeling full without the usual volume you consume.

Connect

The last common aspect of all Blue Zone elders is their sense of family and community. To them, family comes first. Grandparents aren’t shut away in nursing homes. Respect increases with age, so the eldest are given the most respect.

They also feel a sense of belonging within their communities. Friendships endure throughout lifetimes. A person can count on a friend in time of need, and give selflessly when that friend is in need. You’ve got my back, I’ve got your back.

These tight bonds are formed with people of similar values as well. Everyone in a particular community shares the same core values of enjoyable activities (walks, hikes, etc), a healthy outlook (able to vent with each other, a feeling of purpose), healthy diets (natural foods in moderation), and a sense of belonging.

If you’ve been estranged from your family, consider making amends. Be the bigger person and take the first step at healing that bond. In cases where that’s totally impossible, foster the friendships you have, especially with those that share the same values. Consider being a part of a healthy tight-knit community, such as an activity group, special interest group, religious group, etc.

Is This Possible?

For some, this news is obvious to you. But for others, this may seem entirely impossible. How such a lifestyle can be followed in today’s society? I hear you. I know it’s not easy.

I don’t think it’s impossible either. It just takes some extra effort and a lot of discipline. Moving naturally and eating wisely are the easiest ones to do first, since they involve changes in behavior. The tough part is sticking to the new behavior long enough for it to become habit.

Having the right outlook and connecting to others are much tougher. The first involves changing a mental model that’s been ingrained for years. The second involves both behavioral and mental changes.

Part of having the right outlook is having healthy outlets for stress. This can include exercising, talking to trusted friends, or creating art. There are numerous self-help websites and books you can turn to for more ideas as well.

The other part of the right outlook is a sense of purpose. If you can’t find an easy answer, you are probably waiting for that purpose to come to you. Let me correct that misconception: that is not going to happen. Not everyone is lucky enough to be given their purpose. You need to go out and find your purpose. Create one. Look for something you believe in, whether it is a family member, a vocation, or a cause. As long as it allows you to follow these other traits and doesn’t harm others, embrace it as the reason you get up every morning.

Finding a community that accepts you is probably the toughest one to achieve. If you weren’t born into a tight-knit family or community, you will have to work hard to become a part of a healthy community. However, it’s worth the effort. Once you are in a good community, a sense of purpose will almost certainly come to you.

How do you find such a community? Church groups are an obvious source. Activity groups and special interest groups are another, though not all will give you an encompassing sense of community. Some people join such groups just to do the activity, then return to their own communities without further involvement in the group.

Neighborhood-based communities are also a good source. There are “gated communities” (a set of houses enclosed within gates) that try to engender such a sense of belonging, not only for goodwill, but for protection too (crime is less common in such neighborhoods).

For some, their work can also provide a viable community, though like activity and special interest groups, not all of the members may be willing to put in the same level of commitment as you. To them, it’s just a job, not a community.

I am lucky that I follow and have a lot of these traits. Hopefully I can continue to foster them throughout my long, happy life, and vice versa. For many, I had to work hard to create them. But once they’ve become engrained in my life, following them is as easy as eating and breathing.

Want to see more? You can watch Buettner’s talk at a TEDxTC conference on September 2009 about his study of Blue Zones. It’s a fascinating talk.

Now go live long and prosper. And talk a walk around the block while you’re at it.