Thursday, June 11, 2015

Femvertising. A round of applause for brands?

There's a new word in social media. Femvertising. Think Dove's Real Beauty campaign. 

BlogHer 2015, the social media conference behemoth, announced it will bestow an award for sponsored content (i.e. branding or what we used to call advertising). Sure the SheKnowsMedia people dressed it with a feminist angle, a cute name and of course, a hashtag. The conference, taking place next month in New York, home to many brands and social media mavens, will introduce the first ever #Femvertising Award. 
"Just as the Voices of the Year community keynote has always been about representation and inclusion of all types of people in social media, the #Femvertising Awards will honor brands that get it right, challenging gender stereotypes by building awareness-generating, pro-women messages and images into ads that target women." SheKnows Media
I'm all for wiping out gender bias and promoting female-friendly ads, I have three impressionable children and a Certificate in Women's Studies, but the merger of blogging, branding and supposed feminism doesn't sit well with me for a number of reasons. I can't help but wonder whether a media company, folks pushing content at you and me, should be in the business of honoring brands. Even if it is to encourage positive messages about women. It's maddening somehow, two steps forward, one step back. Or one step forward, one back, bow to the brands, now shimmy to the right, shimmy to the left.

Maybe this is the new norm for media companies, marrying content with brands in unique and maddening fashion. At the very least these 12 ad promotions (under consideration for the #Femvertising award) make it clear where the sponsored content and original content begins. For that I am thankful. I suppose.

Other times in social media it's not always easy to tell which is the unique voice, the original content and the branding. How does this affect the content? That there is a relationship between the blogging world and brands is no secret, at least to those in that world. It's less clear how outside readers perceive it. 

Nor is it clear if or how paying bloggers typically nominal amounts of money or in free products, trips or other goodies influences them, their content and their relationship with readers. I have a hard time understanding how it honors women to pay them well below a living wage for using their website and blogs to reach parents. It doesn't strike me as furthering women to say nothing of how it treats their audience. Bloggers, or content creators, aren't quite professionals in the traditional sense. They often don't get the salary, respect or vacation days. 

I struggle with answering whether this approach, the merger of brands and content directed at women ultimately helps women, let alone, as SheMedia suggests, inspires and empowers them.
Femvertising is endemic to our company as we support brands and agencies that seek to inspire and empower women versus shame them through pro-female advertising. SheKnows Media 
Something is endemic but I'm not sure it's women's best interests. Thoughts?

Up next: BlogHer 2015 official tagline - "Experts Amongst Us." 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Anxiety Epidemic: College Students More Worried Than Ever?

Over the past decade there has been mounting concern about the mental health of college students. Survey after survey, article and article, blog post after blog post reports high levels of anxiety, depression and other psychological conditions stalking students in quads and lecture halls across the country. Recently anxiety displaced depression as the most common disorder affecting students in numerous surveys. Nearly 1 in 6 college students was treated for anxiety or an anxiety disorder over the past year according to an annual report by the American College Health Association. The American Psychological Association is worried. College administrators are worried. A 2013 survey found 95% of college counseling centers expressed a "growing concern" about students with serious mental health problems.

Why are colleges students more stressed than usual?

The causes range widely, experts say, from mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media. Anxiety has always played a role in the developmental drama of a student’s life, but now more students experience anxiety so intense and overwhelming that they are seeking professional counseling. Anxious College Students Strain College Mental Health Centers, New York Times

Yes, did you catch that part about parents?

We over-involved, coddling parents who carefully, reluctantly hand over our precious children who are woefully unprepared for balancing their checkbooks (i.e. checking the balance online) and remembering to change their sheets once a semester.

University presidents, counselors and the media all appear more worried than ever about anxious students. What is not certain - whether students actually are more anxious than ever.

It is reasonable to ask to what extent the seeming anxiety epidemic reflects growing anxiety versus other factors such as better awareness, less stigma, more counseling services and resources or even dramatic, heavily covered campus shootings. It's an important issue but nobody seems to know how much anxiety is on the rise.

Although it's very easy to find news of anxiety and stress among today's college students, it is not so simple to determine if anxiety is increasing. It's not easy to make conclusive judgments about longer term changes in the prevalence of anxiety disorders or for that matter, mental health disorders in general. The World Health Organization reports nearly a third of Americans will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives - making us the most anxious country on the globe. Thus I must  ask if there's a correlation between anxiety and awareness, resources, stigma, affluence, and I'll also throw in the insatiable 24/7 new media, because why not.

Are young adults in general more stressed? Why the spot light on college co-eds anyhow? College students make for an excellent, easy survey pool. Fewer surveys address their peers off campus so it's not clear if the latter face as much anxiety. They're not as easily corralled into either college mental health centers (free stress balls! free smoothies!) or undergraduate subject pools (5 extra credit points!).

None of this is to suggest anxiety is not an issue or not a burden. Nor is it to suggest getting through college with its menu of social, emotional and cognitive challenges is stress-free. If I have to regularly read about anxious students, however, it would be a relief to have their plight put into perspective. I would love to have some data, some evidence to do so. At this point it is not forthcoming.

NOTE: Thanks to Andrea Riley for spurring this discussion. Left to my own devices, I would have bored you with a follow-up on the latest faked data scandal. I just can't stop laughing at the NY Times  advice on how to prevent future scientific fraud:

It can start by ensuring that scientists, especially peer reviewers, are allowed to see the underlying data of a paper, which researchers are typically reluctant to share...The federal government could sponsor studies to determine how much cheating goes on, how much harm it causes and how best to combat it.

Right. Peer reviewers (i.e. busy professors/researchers) delving into the raw data behind the papers under review, the papers they critique in their spare time  -  while their own grad students supervise undergraduates entering and coding their lab's raw data. To say nothing about the government sponsoring further research. Have any of the editors ever worked in a research lab or survey organization? 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Fake Science: Parents have some relevant experience here

Another much-hyped study almost certainly will be yanked from the scientific literature. Retracted. Deleted but not forgotten. It was too good to be true, the results appear to be fabricated. This time it’s gay marriage and attitude change. You might remember it. Back in December, we were treated to the remarkable news that a mere 20-minute conversation with a gay activist could change a person’s mind about gay marriage. The prestigious journal Science published it. Major media covered it including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and NPR. Even Science Friday, my beloved, took the bait.  

Parents might not have taken it. Many have relevant experience on these matters. Persuading other people. 

We’ve been down this path before. Seen it. Done it.

Let me reframe the issue so it might sound even more familiar. Let’s say presenting people with new information, accurate information.  For the sake of changing public opinion. Dispelling myths. Correcting misinformation. Targeting exaggerated fears and risks.  To ultimately change not only attitudes and beliefs but behavior. In some cases, health behavior. To protect against disease and illness.

Say measles. 

Some might recall the study last year showing the difficulty of changing opinions about vaccination? Not only is it difficult to persuade some parents to vaccinate, but also even trying can backfire. Attempts to influence opinions can strengthen anti-vaccination beliefs. I wrote about it here but here’s how co-author Brendan Nyhan put it:

Surprising as this may seem, our finding is consistent with a great deal of research on how people react to their beliefs being challenged. People frequently resist information that contradicts their views, such as corrective information— for example, by bringing to mind reasons to maintain their belief — and in some cases actually end up believing it more strongly as a result. Brendan Nyhan, New York Times


If there’s one thing psychologists, economists and parents - all parents, every single one of us know over and over again – it is no easy feat to convince another person to change their minds or behavior. It’s the one persistent theme running through the social science literature. And my household. And yours. 

Any parent who’s ever tried to convince a toddler or teen to do anything knows it. I will not convince my daughter that electronics distract her or prevent a good night’s sleep. I cannot persuade my other daughter that eating breakfast will help her get through the morning in a more congenial, even lively fashion. No amount of reassurance will persuade my son he isn’t at great risk of a nightmare every night I turn off the lights. While I might whittle away day after day, I have no expectation that my kids and I will soon come to agreement on any of these issues. Certainly not after a few minutes. 

So the idea a gay activitist can convince a total stranger on the street to support gay marriage, for any length of time let alone a year after one brief conversation strikes me as improbable. I can’t imagine most people would really believe it. Certainly not keen social observers. We aren’t falling for it. The Daily Beast got it wrong in their headline. Why We Fall For Fake Science.

We didn’t. No parent would upon further reflection of life as they know it. I can’t imagine many social scientists truly believed the study. It goes again much of what they know. When I first heard about the study I assumed, like many incredible findings (e.g. 20 minutes of Mozart makes kids smarter), that the results were either a fluke finding or due to a very narrow task or specific methodology not easily generalized or replicated. 

So here we have more of the usual nonsense. A journal rushing to publish a dramatic study, one that a social scientist surely would conclude resulted from either a very narrow methodology or a fluke finding. Sure to get picked up in the media. Thus a study in a prestigious journal on a hot-button issue with sensational results.  Just too good to pass up.  All the usual suspects bit here. The journal editor, the media plus the co-author who supervised the research done by the grad student on the other side of the country. No one in academic research should believe that a graduate student held $739,000 worth of grant money. It just doesn’t happen. Not many full professors bring in that kind of dough, especially in the social sciences. New York Magazine reported the grants, at one point listed on the grad student’s online vitae, were faked too.

If I sound jaded, forgive me. Retractions are at an all-time high. I seriously doubt these recent events shook up many social scientists. Still, the New York Times declared it so in what has to be one of their least elegant headlines– Doubts About Study of Gay Canvassers Rattles The Field. Um, what?

Speaking of the media. In an op-ed in the New York Times, the Retraction Watch guys pointed fingers at the major players in this latest fake science scandal. They nail the media’s role in perpetuating suspect science:

Most science and health reporters rely on the top journals for news leads. They tend to move in a pack, descending on a small handful of news items each week. When the papers in those journals have the fillip of a hot topic, like sex or race, the frenzy is even greater. And yet many reporters fail to do the necessary due diligence before publishing their work. The drive for scoops is even greater in journalism than it is in science.

A lot of people didn’t do their due diligence here. That’s where you and I come in with our thinking caps and all the wisdom we’ve gleaned from shaping or at least trying to shape young minds and behavior. Thank goodness we have some experience here. On dispelling misinformation. On persuasion. On changing minds and behavior. And sadly on fake science. 

NOTE: The Retraction Watch guys say retractions happen most in top-notch journals. Probably because fraudulent leanings mostly afflict ambitious young researchers bent on securing positions in elite universities. Like Princeton where our latest faker was suppose to land. The university says he isn't on the faculty at this point. Uh huh.