Laura Tropp's blog

Parenting and the Prime Directive

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The teacher placements for my children come out this week, and each day I check the parent portal to find out who will be the new presence in our lives for the upcoming year. I’m surrounded by other mothers also waiting and concerned to find out about their children’s placement. Through Facebook, I see that people are doing this across the country.

This year was particularly exciting for me because of the greater perceived control I had in the process. In our previous school system, my child was assigned to a teacher with no input from me whatsoever. But in this new district, I get to fill out this fabulous little form that asks me all sorts of questions about what kind of environment my child might thrive in. I couldn’t recommend a teacher, exactly, but it seems like I might be able to influence the choice.

Of course, the form was not as easy to fill out as I had imagined. I had to balance my honest assessment of my child with who I want my child to be. In fact, a friend of mine in another state warned me that too many parents put down TMI in these forms. She also reminded me that schools see a different version of children than we do.

By the time I handed in the form, I started to worry: had I interfered too much in the life of my child? I had indicated that one of my children does not do well in a classroom with a teacher who yells. Had I now doomed her to never being able to work in an environment with a loud, angry boss? What if she could have invented a killer app for Amazon.com, but I had prevented her from learning the necessary survival skills to function in that environment? Had I messed with a decision that should have been determined by others, or be left to chance? Did I not give enough information, or did I give too much?

This made me think about how so much of parenting is wondering when you have crossed the line. Every day, I’m in my own Star Trek episode. It seems clear that I should force them to eat vegetables or, at the very least, only have one serving of dessert, but more complicated decisions constantly haunt me. Should I sign up my child for theatre lessons because she enjoys acting, or should I just let her have fun with sock puppets? Should I hire a tutor to push my child into an honors program, or maybe he’s not meant to be in one? When are we giving our children opportunities, and when are we propelling them towards who we want them to be?

I question whether this would even be of concern generations earlier, when children were expected to follow in the footsteps of their parents, taking over the family profession or caring for the farm or household. Is the prime directive of parenting a 21st century concern? Watching out for the best interests of one’s child, protecting them, and making sure they have every opportunity at their disposal may lead to helicopter parenting, but parents also want their children to grow to become their own person. I wonder whether these competing concerns are mutually exclusive.

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A World Without Time and Money

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While I was on the subway, I wanted to find out what time it was. I long ago stopped wearing a watch, but I didn't feel like digging through my bag to find my phone. I saw that the teenager sitting next to me was wearing a watch, so I tried stealing a glance to see the time. Unfortunately, the watch was a little too far away and upside down for me to see. I turned to the stranger and asked him for the time. Once he finally took off his headphones and realized I had asked, he didn’t think to look at his watch but instead reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He checked the time on it and told me, before putting his headphones back on and ending our transaction.

This made me think about how the wristwatch has become obsolete: even when you still wear one, you aren’t conditioned to look at it. In my family, the ability to read an analog clock has always been something we celebrated by presenting our child with their very own watch. I’m wondering if my third child will even be interested in having a watch at all.

I’ve found a similar transformation with money. When my oldest child was younger, I was still making purchases with cash. He would have natural lessons in how to make change by witnessing our daily transactions. Contrast that with my daughter, who yesterday engaged in a troubling mathematical exercise with the ice cream man. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she needs to work on her change-making skills.

I wonder where are we getting the chance to practice these skills. Moreover, are they really so necessary in a world where you can have an app calculate the tip or you can pay for most services with a credit card? With our increased reliance on credit and debit cards to pay for everyday purchases, I’m finding it more difficult to teach my children the basic concept of money and, more importantly, the possibility of running out of it. Without seeing the dollar bills disappear, it’s more challenging to see money as a finite thing.

Ron Lieber discusses in his book The Opposite of Spoiled the value of teaching children about money and cautions against a society where parents avoid broaching the subjects of finance and wealth with children. I suspect, however, that the role of new technologies is playing a part in preventing us from having to understand the mechanics of things like time and money. My son never learned script, and while he still can’t sign his name, he knows how to work an automatic thumbprint reader on my iPhone (thanks again for setting that up for me, son).

Maybe signatures will be obsolete in the future, saving my son the trouble of having to learn to sign his name, but the skills of being able to think about money and time from a very basic perspective are ones I don’t want him to miss. So, I think I’m scheduling some “wayback” days, when my kids and I will focus on skills that I think our digital world discourages but we absolutely need. What skills would you add to the wayback list?

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The Joy of Doing Nothing

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Yesterday, my daughter came to me and said, “All I did all day long yesterday was play babies. ALL DAY.” I couldn’t tell if this was a complaint or not, but I had to admit that I felt guilty that my children were not in camp.

Up until last year, I had always sent my kids to some type of day camp. Partly I did this so that I could get my own work done during the summer (because, unlike what non-academics believe, professors do work during the summer months). I also thought that they needed the stimulation and activity of camp. In fact, when other mothers would tell me that their kids were not signed up for camp, I admit that I felt sorry for them (both the kids and the mothers) and figured that it was probably just a matter of cost.

Now that I have joined the ranks of campless moms, I can tell that some people feel sorry for me. After the chaos of the school year, I just wasn’t interested in camp. I didn’t want to have to do the typical send-off routine of finding bathing suits, sunblock, bug spray, water bottles that don’t leak (an almost-impossible task), and the towels. I was tired of convincing my daughters that the camp bathrooms were clean enough to use, and that even though I always make them change out of wet bathing suits at home, that rule wasn’t applicable during camp. I also wanted to take a break from the drama of the camp friends and the inclusion/non-inclusion stories. I just wanted to relax with them and have fun. We have a pool in our new home, and isn’t that half the fun of camp? 

I then began to feel guilty that my children were not getting enough stimulation. Some days, we haven’t left the house before 2pm. I decided we could have a theme each week so that the kids could feel that they were getting a camp-like experience. The first would be Greek week, when we could make Greek food, discuss Greek mythology, do early science experiments from Greek philosophers, and make cool Medea characters out of toilet paper roll tubes. All I have done so far is remember not to throw away one toilet paper tube.

I have now begun to accept slowly that I was falling into the trap of the over-stimulated child and the hyper-parent. Last year, an article from The Atlantic  explored the value of play during the summer. I don’t need to entertain my kids all day. The girls played with their dolls for most of yesterday and were happy. I don’t have to reproduce an activity from Pinterest for them to have a fulfilling day. It’s okay if we spend an afternoon reading (myself included). Maybe they won’t have engaged in as many sports, and they won’t know what ga-ga is, but they can have the simple joy of learning how to fill their time and knowing what it feels like to be bored (an increasingly fleeting experience among screen-saturated youth). Yesterday, they discovered a turtle in their front yard.

I still think camp is a great thing for many kids, and for the many parents who don’t have the luxury of being home during the summer. My kids may go back in the future, but in the meantime, we are enjoying a more relaxing summer experience. While we may not have our own Greek-themed week, maybe we can at least all go out for some Baklava.

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Bribing, Incentivizing

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This week I have been following some conversations taking place about screen addiction. Jane Brody wrote about the issue in her New York Times column, and a new documentary called Web Junkie, about teens in China addicted to video games, airs next week on PBS. As I write this, my son is in the room next door addictively playing Minecraft on his computer. Next week, we are sending him to a Minecraft camp, where he will still be on a screen all day, but I get to pay for him to do that in an officially sanctioned “camp.” It makes sense that these conversations are coming up during the summer, when children often have more free time to spend on screens, but I’ve also been viewing some interesting discussions on Facebook with faculty about how they are going to handle their technology policies this fall semester.

It seems that people tend to be divided into two camps: those that have given up (or are adapting to the new technology environment, which sounds better) and let their students use the screens, and those that enact strict rules and policing policies to prevent students from using screens while in the classroom. I have found myself sitting in both camps in the past. This summer, however, I am noticing that those in the former camp are thinking about reverting to a no-technology policy because they think it is interfering with students’ ability to focus and reflect. Clay Shirky, a Professor at NYU who specializes in emerging media technologies, wrote an interesting piece last fall about his new policy to ban all screens in his classes. He even made an intriguing analogy comparing technology in a classroom to second-hand smoke. However, many faculty have responded that banning technology does not work but only creates a deceptive culture in which students slyly sneak their technology use in class.

So, I have a new suggestion. Why not incentivize the policy a bit? What if, in the fall, I bring a basket into my classroom, and any student who chooses to put his or her device(s) in it for the class period will earn a point in each class towards a portion of the final grade? Now, I know that some people are going to say that I’m encouraging us to reward something that should be a given — listening — and maybe that is true, but maybe it’s worth it? Everyone likes to feel they are getting something for nothing, so this may be just the ticket to help students focus and have them feel that there is something in it for them (beyond, you know, actually learning).

I know that education should be their true reward, but that doesn’t seem to be working anymore. And, how is it any different than my reward system for my own children? I mean, they should go to bed when they are tired but since they won’t, that sticker reward chart always does the trick: they get to sleep, and I get to watch Orange is the New Black, so everyone is a winner. The thought of being able to teach an entire class without asking a student to put some device away or watching a student text (sometimes to another student across the room) seems worth a few grade points. My next questions are: how much of a percentage should I offer, and what heading should I label this policy in the syllabus?

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The Helicopter Parenting of 'Inside Out'

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I saw the Pixar movie Inside Out over the weekend. It is the perfect film for the Age of Helicopter Parents. The premise, for those who haven’t been exposed to the media hype over the last week, is that we see animated the internal emotions of an 11-year-old girl. The film, though, taps in to all the fears of modern parenting.

Much of the plot involves the emotion of Joy trying to prevent sadness from invading the memories of the girl. How much of parenting these days is about working our hardest to protect our children from having feelings of discomfort or sadness? Today, at my child’s school field day activity where I was helping out as a parent volunteer, we were encouraged to judge both teams at the event I was supervising as having tied, rather than declaring one a winner. One child caught on after awhile and said that it’s pretty funny that the teams always have ties. Thinking on my feet, I said, “Well I guess it means you are evenly matched,” but I wondered whether I’m doing any of these kids any real favors by not allowing a team to lose.

In the film, the emotions, who seem to be the equivalent to the hovering parents of today, learn that sadness and joy need to be paired. The film shows us the behind-the-scenes actions of the brain, positing that people have core memories that stay with them for life and specific areas within the brain that serve as their lenses for living. I will leave the reality check for the neuroscientists in the crowd, but it made me think how this very premise taps into our hopes and fears as parents. How many of us live with the fear that one bad moment of mothering will be the only moment our children remember? I can’t tell you how awful my nighttime routine was when they were little; all I could think about was how we had such a wonderful day and all they will remember is mommy yelling at them to go to sleep right before bed. You can imagine my delight when Go the F*** to Sleep came out and I realized I wasn’t alone. The film also brings out the dreams and hopes of parents. Would it be only that easy to be able to simply choose wonderful memories for your children?

It is ironic, then, that some parents’ posts on websites I was reading said that they didn’t like the movie because it was too sad for their children. One parent was angry that their eight-year old left the theatre crying. Two of my children cried as well, and I admit to shedding some tears myself, but that was kind of the whole point. On our way out, I explained to my children that sometimes movies, or school, or life is sad, but then later we will have happy moments with them, and those moments will feel even happier because we experienced the sad ones, too. Wouldn’t you rather children learn that lesson at age 7? And wouldn’t you, as their parent, be the one who imparts that lesson to them?

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The Helicopter Parenting <br>of 'Inside Out'

A Second Look at Fathers

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Recently, my son wanted me to attend an event in which he was participating. I told him I’d do my best to finish up my meetings and get home in time.

He was outraged.

My son informed me that I had yet to attend a single event at his school, while my husband has attended several. Keep in mind, we only moved at the end of January this year, but this is an event-heavy school. He said his friends were going to think his father and I were divorced, or worse: that I wasn’t even alive.

I explained to him the double standard. If I had been attending these events and his father hadn’t, would the kids assume I was divorced, or that his father had a demanding job where he wasn’t free to attend all these events. My son acknowledged this fact and apologized. Note: I did internalize the guilt and made sure I was at the event.

Since then, I’ve been thinking more about how his comment reflects just as much our expectation of fathers’ relationship to work as much as it does for mothers. I admit that I’m guilty of taking advantage of the patriarchy. Whenever we have a child home from school and one of us has to bring him or her to the office, I always make my husband do it. I reason that, when a woman brings a kid to her office, it looks like she can’t balance her work and family life. When a man does it, it looks like he’s stepping up for his family. 

It is important to note that we have made progress when it comes to changing roles and expectations of fathers in society. In fact, in Deconstucting Dads: Changing Images of Fathers in Popular Culture (due out next year by Lexington Press), an edited collection I am co-editing with Dr. Janice Kelly that examines media depictions of fathers, I have studied how fathers are appearing more in active roles within media outlets. The bumbling father image, once a staple of fatherhood representation, is a bit more complicated now. In fact, when Huggies released a commercial showing a bumbling dad, fathers protested.  

Yet at the same time, until we begin to make larger structural changes in society that benefit both working women and men, the ability of fathers to have the freedom to be equal players in the lives of their children and still have a successful career (a fight women have long waged) will remain a challenge. Paid family leave, access to childcare, and a decrease in the expectation that all of us need to be available and working 24 hours per day, seven days per week must be addressed. In addition to changing policy, we also need to change social expectations of men playing the role of family provider. We can look to the example of our more progressive countries regarding family policies, like Sweden, where fathers can be more able to be involved in early childcare because of generous family leave benefits. For that policy to work, though, the country had to incenticize fathers to take some of the leave days by reducing the number of days available if only mothers used the benefit. In other words, even countries way ahead of the U.S. regarding work/life/family balance need to change their cultures.

Since we seem to be, sadly, far away from the policy and legislative changes that need to happen, we can still work to change culturally how we see fathers and our expectations of them. So in honor of the upcoming Father’s Day holiday, I think we should encourage (or permit, if you are in a position of authority) fathers the chance to turn off their work on the weekend, bring their family lives into the office, arrange a playdate with a dad (a task that is usually a mom’s role) or some other activity that acknowledges and encourages the contributions of fathers as more than economic providers, but as equal caretakers of the family. Perhaps only then will society not assume that caretaking is solely mothers’ work.

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Move Over Stork

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I’ve been reading with interest about the depopulation problem in Denmark and the ways different groups have been trying to tackle it. From a marketing perspective, there’s a travel agency using the crisis as an opportunity to encourage people to “Do it For Denmark” and use their holiday as a sex-cation. The country has shifted its sex education classes for children to include pronatalistic attitudes. In many ways, the country has been forced to make discussion about sex an open, public, and necessary conversation.

What’s been particularly interesting to me is contrasting Denmark’s moment with my own experience of sex education in the U.S. When I was in public school thirty years ago, my health classes would separate the boys and girls for “the puberty talk.” Later, we would have co-ed health classes that emphasized abstinence. My son, now ten years old, recently joined the other boys in his class to watch a short film on puberty. I’m wondering if it is the same one my male classmates saw many years ago?

How has sex education changed in thirty years? How does it conflict with the much more open communication our country is having about gender? I spend time teaching my children and students about notions of gender fluidity and places where sex and gender discussions are problematic, but then the boys and girls are separated for lessons on puberty. My son seemed relieved to be with “just the guys,” but does making the other sex a mystery lead to more problems down the road and further perpetuate gender/sex divides? And what about those students who do not identify their sexuality in such a binary way? How can their needs be accommodated when classes are divided into “boys” and “girls?” How much of puberty is hidden in our culture, and for what reasons?

With two daughters who soon will enter this stage of education, I’m also curious specifically about how girls are taught about menstruation. For some girls, is the first time they even have an interaction with menstruation going to be with a health film at age ten? Some of the newest birth control pills actually prevent woman from having periods more than once or twice a year, if at all. A former colleague of mine, Giovanna Chesler, made a film on this topic called Period: The End of Menstruation. How are these possibilities and issues dealt with in schools, or are they ignored completely?

We have made some good progress as a society on beginning to discuss gender identity, but where does sex education fit in with these advances? Are there any educators reading this post who study or teach about these issues? How do you see sex education changing? How should it?

 

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Conforming ... or Not?

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My son is a self-proclaimed non-conformist, which is something I always have applauded him for. I think most people, if asked whether they would prefer their child be more of a conformist or non-conformist, would probably prefer the latter. In my observations, professors generally prefer to think of themselves as free thinkers. I can think of plenty of meetings where people seemed to be on the same side of an issue but were disagreeing for the sake of appearing to think differently. In fact, Apple’s branding campaign once was based entirely on the premise that everyone should “think different.”

However, it’s one thing to embrace individuality as a 40-something year old adult, and quite another to watch your ten-year-old child live through it. We might all talk the talk about embracing difference and encouraging children to think for themselves, but the reality of childhood is that it is filled with social rules. Though we recognize and combat peer pressure and bullying much more frequently these days, they certainly have not disappeared from children’s lives. 

Therefore, when my son decided he wanted to wear neon green and silver gardening gloves to school the other day just because they looked cool to him, I experienced an extreme cognitive dissonance. My professor world is built around encouraging students to think differently and celebrating my ability to do my own thing. I want to afford my son the same freedom, but I’m still a mother and don’t want my son to go to school and be teased when I could easily steer him away from that potentially traumatic experience. I simply could have told him that he can’t wear the gloves, but what type of message would that send? Yet, if I let him wear the gloves without any warning, would I be setting him up for social ostracism? 

I know I’m talking about gloves, but this incident is just the latest one of many that I have encountered with my son, and I’m sure this pattern will continue. Yet, when we discourage a child from being who he or she is with the excuse that we are trying to protect them from a harsh society, are we simply becoming a part of that hegemonic force?

I said to my son, “It is your decision whether or not you want to wear those gloves. I’m just going to let you know that you may get one of a range of reactions. First, you could wear the gloves, and no one notices. Second, you could wear the gloves, and some kid says, ‘you look like a weirdo in those gloves.’ Third, you could wear the gloves, and everyone loves how cool they look and tomorrow, four more kids will be wearing neon gardening gloves in 80-degree weather.” 

My son thought for a moment about what I said and replied that he was going to wear the gloves. However, just before the school bus arrived, he changed his mind and handed them to me. He said thanks, but he’s not wearing them today. He added, “By the way, mom, you do a great impression of a bully.” He hopped on the bus without a care in the world.

I couldn’t figure out if this was one of my worst parenting moments, or one of my most awesome? Sure, I let him make the decision, but I certainly steered him toward the worst-case scenario. If this were a year ago, I probably would have said no to him wearing the gloves, without any explanation at all.

At the end of the day, he went off happy. Of course, this entire parenting moment happened within the span of just a few minutes. I can spend hours prepping for a class to explore hegemony, ideology, and non-conformity, but I only have three minutes to teach it to my child.

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Making Motherhood (not just mom) Visible

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I will be attending a conference on the subject of motherhood in New York City at the end of the week. It is a joint effort between the Museum of Motherhood, CUNY Graduate Center, and Manhattan College. The title of the conference is Tales of Motherhood: Dislodging the Unthinkable, and its focus is on reclaiming the visibility of motherhood. The conference was timed to be the week before Mother’s Day, one of the only times of the year when the idea of motherhood gets full attention from entertainment and news media.

The rest of the time, the media seem to be interested only when motherhood is presented as a spectacle. Whether it is Kate Middleton giving birth to her second baby (the “spare to the throne”), a mother pulling her son away from the Baltimore riot and disciplining him, or any of the celebrity moms and their post-baby weight loss, the everyday experience of motherhood is put aside in favor of the good/bad mom of the moment. The Museum of Motherhood (of which I’m a board member), received borrowed space in New York City for several years but has closed its physical doors at the end of the previous year (it remains a virtual museum and is presently looking for new space).  The museum was hampered in its ability to fundraise because of the invisibility of motherhood. People could not understand why there would need to be a museum for something that seems so “natural.”

During the next ten days, we will all be subjected to stories about presents to buy for our moms, extraordinary moms who have overcome illness or tragedy, and reports on what moms would earn if they were performing their work in the workplace. Last year even brought us a fake job interview (sponsored by American Greetings, of course) to illustrate the burden of a mom’s work. Moms might even get cards from their children, a plant, or breakfast in bed.

All that may be nice, but what would be even better is if there were more discussion on the challenges facing mom in terms of wage gaps, lack of access to day care, lack of flexibility in jobs, the difficulty of re-entry to the workplace, among other serious topics that don’t lend themselves to cute videos to sell cards or flowers, but can lead toward systematic change.

So, my wish this year is for everyone to have a happy Mother’s Day (‘cause, why not enjoy it?) but also for us all to consider ways to make mothers’ work more visible and supported on a daily basis.

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Making Motherhood <br>(not just Mom) Visible

Child’s Play in a Social Media World

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In the last 72 hours, I have received two requests from my 10-year-old son and my 8-year-old daughter for what I deem as unnecessary technology during inappropriate times. 

My son told me that everyone else on the school bus has an electronic device, and he really needs one too so that he doesn’t have to be the only one not busy on his trip home. My daughter tells me that, at the parties she goes to, the other girls have iPhones or iPads and she feels left out when they play on them.

My immediate response was “Absolutely not!” to both requests. I told my son that he needs to value downtime and that the school bus ride is great opportunity to look out the window and think about his upcoming plans. I’ve lamented here before about the loss of reflection time in our world and my desire to find moments to reclaim it. I also told my daughter that the whole point of parties is to socially engage with other children, and their screens stand in the way of that.

Have I lost this war, though? If my son and daughter are the only ones not connected (and I do acknowledge the exaggeration on their parts), am I discouraging them from finding ways to bond with the children that are forming our new socially networked age? Are kids in the same room playing on their device interacting, just in a different way?

Newer reports find that exposing children to social media at younger ages may heighten their social exclusion. Facebook made waves last June for applying for a patent that would allow children under 13 to join the social networking site. I find it hard to imagine a world with young children on Facebook.  FOMO (fear of missing out) is already happening to younger children with access to social media because they can see what their friends are doing and realize that they aren’t doing it (maybe they weren’t invited, maybe their family had alternative plans, maybe you didn’t want your child involved in that particular activity). 

I remember when my child was younger and my neighbor had a birthday party and didn’t invite her (only boys were invited). I had heard about the party from another neighbor, so I was able to keep my daughter from finding out by just avoiding the neighbor’s house during the party. The ability to shield, though, disappears in a world where children are socially networked. One may argue that you shouldn’t protect your children from these disappointments. I wouldn’t disagree, but there is a difference between having the choice and not.

Neil Postman’s Disappearance of Childhood, which focused on television’s influence over children and adults, is even more apt today. Already, the line between children and adult clothing is disappearing. Even games once reserved for children have become adult pastimes: check out adult dodgeball leagues. These trends may seem silly to me, but I’m not sure they have any lasting detrimental effects (although heels couldn’t be good for a 3-year-old’s feet). Yet, social media is still in its incunabular stage. We have hardly figured out its impact on adults. I don’t think we should be encouraging children to jump into it. Let’s allow playdates and school bus rides be child’s play.

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Child’s Play <br>in a Social Media World

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