A Texas University’s Mind-Boggling Database Of Teens’ Daily Text Messages, Emails, and IMs Over Four Years
Marion Underwood calls her academic study, “The Blackberry Project.” A title that would work equally well is “, Jr.” For the past four years, the University of Texas-Dallas developmental psychology professor has essentially wire-tapped 175 Texas teens, capturing every text message, email, photo, and IM sent on Blackberries that she provided to them, creating a rich database that now contains millions of funny, explicit, sexual, and inane messages for academic study. Half a million new messages pour into the database every month. This summer, she’s adding Facebook content to the mix as well. The teens sacrificed their privacy for science… and a free smartphone, data plan and unlimited text messaging.
In 2003, Underwood recruited 281 third and fourth graders from 13 Dallas public schools to participate in an “ongoing longitudinal study examining how children make and keep friends.” The then-9-year-olds and their parents agreed to be interviewed and observed by researchers annually. In the year before her guinea pigs were about to enter high school, Underwood got her first Blackberry.
“I realized I was holding the Internet in my hand,” says Underwood. “I called the woman who sold it to me and asked if I could get 200 of them so I could use it as a tool to track the activity of all the kids in the study.”
The saleswoman referred Underwood to Sprint, which told her it could set up a Blackberry Enterprise Server to give her access to all of the communications of the teens (much like your employer captures your communications if you’re using a work-supplied device). But it would be expensive. And because “studying electronic communication provides ‘a window into the secret world of adolescent peer culture,’” there were some serious ethical issues to be addressed.
(Issues that occur to me: Are 8th graders equipped to make this kind of decision about their privacy? What about the capture of messages from people outside of the study? In Texas, just one person has to consent to the recording of a conversation, but for those in, or participants who have moved to, other two-party consent states, there could be legal considerations. And what about the legal implications of sexting teens sending nude photos that are now stored in the database, given the toxicity in the law with regards to possession of child porn?)
Underwood somehow got the project approved by the IRB, received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), hooked up with Ceryx and Global Relay — companies that help financial companies capture employee communication per SEC rules — and got over 175 of her 281 participants to sign up for the Digital Panopticon. (Some students dropped out because they preferred iPhones to Blackberries, says Underwood.) The kids and their parents have to sign “detailed consent forms” yearly. There are 81 girls and 94 boys; 23% of them are African-American, 50% are Caucasian, and 15% are Hispanic. Nearly half come from families that make less that $75K per year. Other than paying participants $50 for lab visits, the only financial compensation is the phone and its associated plan, which comes out to a little over $600 per person.
The kids are now high school seniors; the capture of their digital communications over the past four years provides an intimate look at their private lives. There have been about how kids use technology, but this detailed collection is the first of its kind.
Previous studies have involved looking at teens’ social networking pages, blogs, and chat rooms — all publicly available. “No previous published research has provided adolescents with cell phones or smart phones and recorded the content of their electronic communication,” write the researchers . “The only previous study that measured the content of text messaging required college students to write down all text messages for a 24-hr period in a diary.”
Not as good, obviously.
When I asked Underwood if any of the kids (or their parents) had ever expressed concern about the privacy of their communications, and the discomfort they might feel about every single thing they send being archived indefinitely for study, she said it had been a “non-issue.”
“We haven’t really directly asked about it. We don’t do anything to draw attention to our monitoring,” says Underwood. She prefers that teenagers act naturally. Asking them too strongly about how they feel about their privacy might negatively affect the “observing them in the wild” aspect of her study.
“They trust that we’ll keep their content confidential,” she adds. She’s told the students and their families that they will not be publicly identified.
BlackBerry 8730e, the model provided to the Dallas school kids
When I asked whether there was ever any sign that they restrict what they say knowing they’re being watched, she points to the sheer number of messages sent (500,000/month) and the amount of profanity (words like damn, piss, f%$*were found in 7% of 43,305 messages sent over two days, in one sample) and sexual content (e.g., boob, horny, erection, orgasm, and other words I shouldn’t list here, were found in 6.6% of the messages in the same sample) contained therein to suggest that’s not the case. “There cannot be that much censoring,” says Underwood. “Some of what I read makes me want to wash my eyes.”
“We are interested in messages about sexual activity,” she continues. “We look at conversations about sex but we don’t open photos for obvious reasons. For all the texting, I’m not sure how much sex stuff they’re actually doing. But we’ll ask them in interviews.”
On rare occasions, says Underwood, participants will warn friends about the monitoring. When a friend texted one participant about selling drugs, he responded, “Hey, be careful, the BlackBerry people are watching, but don’t worry, they won’t tell anyone.”
Underwood got a Federal Certificate of Confidentiality from the NIH, exempting the researchers from having to report any discussion of crimes to authorities. But her team is required to monitor the database for talk of suicide or abuse. On a weekly basis, they do a search with a long list of words, including rape, kill myself, or older man. They’ve had to intervene fewer than 5 times, says Underwood.
When teens have run away from home, the researchers have contacted them on their Blackberries at the behest of their parents, reminding them that “continued access to the Blackberry depends on their parents’ continuing to give consent.” All runaways have returned home.
Just three people, including Underwood, have direct and unrestricted access to the database, though there is a team of about 15 people who read the transcripts and hand code them for further study. Given how massive this database is, these people really need some awesome data-mining tools. (Palantir? Google? Help please.) They currently have a linguistic analysis tool, LIWC, but its usefulness is hindered by the fact that it doesn’t recognize much of the teens’ digital shorthand and acronyms.
Underwood has gotten calls from investigators around the country who would love access to her database, but she says she doesn’t want to hand over the data unless she can de-identify it or anonymize it. I’m imagining many a privacy scholar shaking his or her head in dismay given how difficult true anonymization is.
“Maybe I’m naive,” says Underwood. “I think technology can do anything.”
Given all that a database like this could reveal, I was a little disappointed at their public conclusions thus far, namely that boys and girls text about the same amount (sending and receiving about 110 texts per day) — contrary to what was thought based on surveys of teens. The researchers note in a recent paper that the captured communication could reveal “much about their developing social relationships with peers, emerging romantic relationships, communication with parents during this period of increasing autonomy, relationships with authority figures, and the extent to which youths communicate with strangers.” I’m sure you could write at least 69 academic papers about sexual behavior based on sexts alone. But the academics have written just one paper thus far, mainly focused on their techniques. In our conversation, Underwood mentioned as a main finding that the number of text messages a teen sends does not correlate with behavior problems, but rather that the content of text messages does. Which doesn’t seem particularly surprising to me. Let danah boyd at that database! This is like the digital version of the Up Series.
I suspect the researchers may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what they’ve captured: 500,000 messages every month. And they’re hand-coding them?
Underwood plans to take back participants’ Blackberries during their first year of college, and instead to capture their Facebook interactions over a two-year period. With a $200,000 grant from the NIH, Underwood has hired a company called Arkovi to provide an app that will capture participants’ private messages, status updates and Wall postings.
“It’s amazing what they say. I thought it would be silly, but it’s so rich and deep. It’s a real privilege to get to read it,” says Underwood. “People in my field are fascinated by young people’s communication, but they ask them to self report it. We don’t ask them what they do. We get to watch it.”
- A Texas University’s Mind-Boggling Database Of Teens’ Daily Text Messages, Emails, and IMs Over Four Years (textually.org)
- UT Dallas Professor Captures the Mobile Interactions of 175 Texas Teens (yro.slashdot.org)
- The Secret of The American Teen Is Contained In This Massive Text Message Database (gawker.com)
- TextSlide Launches Chatroulette for Text Messaging (twilio.com)
- How to Send Text Messages Free (tech-faq.com)
- Concord student arrested after sending threatening text messages (mercurynews.com)
- Ballistic Device Launches Analogue Text Messages (gizmodo.com.au)
- How teens texting affects auto insurance rates (news.onlineautoinsurance.com)
- Five Tip Friday – BlackBerry Messenger 6.0 (helpblog.blackberry.com)
- Get City of Belle Plaine Early Warnings by Text Message (riverrockchurch.com)