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Mentors, models are educators' key roles when it comes to digital citizenship

By Mary Beth Hertz
December 28, 2018
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“This person keeps sending me inappropriate messages on Snapchat and I don’t know who they are.”

“A girl from my neighborhood keeps texting me threats and won’t leave me alone.”

“Why can’t I post that embarrassing pic of my friend on Instagram? It’s hilarious!”

These comments are representative of those my students have made during class discussions. Every freshman who joins the Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, a 1:1 high school in Philadelphia, takes my Intro to Tech course. We talk about online privacy and why it matters, and about the nuances of how we share and what we share online.

Students also describe their experiences with embarrassing online situations – times they felt uncomfortable or threatened, for example – and we talk through the process they went through and how they handled (or didn’t handle) the situation.

One thing I continue to learn while teaching this class is that we underestimate our children. The media paints a picture of irresponsible teens posting online and the problems with teens’ lack of privacy online. We are made to believe that we must save children from themselves when it comes to social media, and that parents should be locking down kids’ access to these sites or hovering over their shoulders.

If a kid makes a mistake, the knee-jerk reaction is to take the technology away. But many of my students know how to configure privacy settings, they understand (and loathe) “oversharing” and they worry about their privacy.

I find the knee-jerk reactions silly. Do we take the slide away when a child slides down it and barrels another child over? Do we dismantle the swings when kids fight over whose turn it is? If there’s name-calling on the playground, do we shutter the playground and tell everyone it’s off limits from now on?

These examples describe exactly what we are doing when we have impulsive reactions to kids’ use of technology. Dismantling the playground or blocking access to it doesn’t fix the problem. Kids will find another place to play, most likely completely away from adult eyes.

The more sensible reaction is to address the issue head on – to explain, mediate and model. Explaining that it’s important to wait until the last person has cleared the bottom of the slide before going down, providing solutions for taking turns, intervening when a child looks like he or she is in trouble, or modeling appropriate conflict resolution so they can learn from our example are things we, as caretakers, do on a daily basis. Why is it that when the medium changes, we suddenly stop modeling these behaviors?

As danah boyd says in her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, “Parents lament their own busy schedules and lack of free time but dismiss similar sentiments from their children.” In addition, some schools have limited or done away with recess altogether. As a result, social media has become the one place where young people can meet, play and explore unsupervised social interactions. “Meet me at the park” has become “Meet me on social media.” Social media is the playground for today’s young people.

In the complex conversations I have with my students, I often discover that most of them are navigating the world of social media on their own, watching and emulating what they see online with little guidance from adults. By blocking, avoiding and staying out of the social media world, we have left our children to their own devices.

As boyd puts it, “The key to understanding how youth navigate social media is to step away from the headlines – both good and bad – and dive into the more nuanced realities of young people.”

We need to be talking with young people about their lives, both off and online. This doesn’t mean you have to follow your child’s accounts or “friend” them on every social media avenue they use. It doesn’t mean that schools need to control students’ use of social media. But we do need to talk to our students about news stories involving social media, about their experiences, about poor choices people have made. We need to listen to their perspectives and their opinions.

We can learn a lot more and make a much larger, long-term impact on their online lives if we treat their use of social media with the lens of a mentor and a model, not an authority figure.

Mary Beth Hertz is a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia. She is an ISTE member and was named an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2009, was the Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications & Technology’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013, and is a member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s 2013 Class of Emerging Leaders.