One day while riding the train, Brooklyn senior Aissata Bah looked up from her phone. She was struck by what she saw. Every person in the train car was looking at their phones. She wondered what sorts of risks her fellow passengers were taking, most without realizing it.
“If we are constantly using this device, we need to know what risks they are imposing on us as well,” she says.
So, Bah, a Kingsborough Early College Secondary School student, decided to learn more. Through an opportunity with the New York City Department of Education’s HEAT program, Bah undertook a research project to understand the threats that apps pose to our privacy.
On the day of our interview, Gina Tesoriero, edtech program leadership coach for the New York City Department of Education, got caught unaware. Bah asked Tesoriero if she had checked out the tracking happening on her phone. Tesoriero, no newbie to technology, admits that she had not. Together, the two looked at the settings on her phone and found many apps tracking her location and listening to her conversations.
“My favorite thing about Aissata is that she calls me out,” Tesoriero said. “I’ve learned that with tracking, it’s best to err on the side of caution.”
Bah is not alone in teaching adults a thing or two about technology. The benefits of Gen Z’s knowledge about technology go way beyond teaching Grandma how to use Facebook. As digital natives, this generation integrates their digital lives more seamlessly with their real lives. Most importantly, they also pass along the new rules of safety and civility to the generations before them.
The idea that kids can be the changemakers that lead society to a better place is not new. A 2019 study published in Nature Climate Change found that teaching children about the reality of global warming altered the way their parents thought about the issue.
Middle school students enrolled in a climate change curriculum affected how their parents, including strongly conservative parents, thought about the issue. The students were given tools to talk to their parents, such as a structured interview about how they have noted weather changes over the years. Concern about climate change rose by an average of 4.29 points compared to parents whose kids were not enrolled in the curriculum.
Justifiably, the dangers that social media and technology pose to kids is in the news a lot. But many conversations take a black-or-white approach rather than considering ways that education can improve our interaction with technology. Bah, and other digital natives can show us how to find balance.
Using her voice for good
When New Hampshire’s Olivia Van Ledtje was 9, she was bullied at school. Her mom, Cynthia Merrill, wanted to help her find her voice and regain her confidence. Surprisingly, Merrill looked to social media.
Merrill, director of regions for the online institution Western Governors University, helped Van Ledtje post short, selfie-style talks about her favorite books to her mom’s social media account. Known as Livbits, the videos went viral. Van Ledtje says the videos helped her “realize that people liked me and cared about what I had to say.”
Despite the concern about social media and children, Merrill says there are important benefits to introducing kids to social media early — with precautions, of course.
“From a safety perspective, it’s a lot easier to talk to an 8- or 9-year-old about what it means to create and how to use platforms to amplify their story,” Merrill says. “They eat it up at that age. Contrast that with a 13-year-old. Their role models often become celebrities, who aren’t always the best example.”
Plus, typically 13-year-olds are less interested in listening to what adults say. Now a junior at Phillips Exeter Academy, Van Ledtje’s topics have expanded to include other things she loves, like sharks and ballet, and her thoughts about life. She has spoken at conferences, including ISTE 2016, the National Council of Teachers of English and the Digital Citizenship Summit. She has also written an ISTE book, Spark Change: Making Your Mark in a Digital World. Her videos still end with her trademark, “Keep reading, keep thinking, and keep watching Livbits for more ideas about your books and the world.”
Van Ledtje suggests starting kids on social media training wheels, such as Padlet or Flipgrid. That way, kids can learn how to get their message out there in a safer environment.
When asked if she is worried about the negative aspects of social media, she says it is all about how you use it. She says if you are using social media to look up your passions, like sharks and ballet, that is what your feed will be. She also raves about the many authors on social media who are open to interacting with their fans.
Van Ledtje teaches adults and kids about safe and healthy ways to approach their digital identity. The most important aspect is a digital conscience, an awareness of how your audience views stories, and a desire to make a positive impact with your voice.
“Your posts tell others who you are and are a message for the world,” she says. “Your digital identity should match who you are offline.”
Here is Van Ledtje’s step-by-step guide:
1. Your posts are your story, so create with your audience in mind.
2. Identify your digital crew — people who will help you by liking, commenting and monitoring your accounts.
3. Block to bloom — blocking the people who can’t help you grow your story is OK.
4. Have an “I can help” attitude and support other peoples' stories.
5. Be for digital good — you can help create content that’s joyful and inspiring to others.
Advice to teachers: Don't be afraid of tech
Having a digital conscience doesn’t always protect her from the negative side of social media. Ledtje feels the sting of microaggressions the same way any teen would. She describes these microaggressions as someone leaving many comments on one friend’s post but none on another. “It’s like sitting down at a lunch table, and no one is talking to you.,” she says. “Plus, it’s public that no one is commenting on your posts. That doubles the impact.”
Nevertheless, Merrill says Van Ledtje is better at many digital concepts than her. “Liv is much better at telling a full story of who she is online, and I find that inspiring,” she says. “She inspires me to find other people online who are authentic and genuine. She recognizes her responsibility to be herself when posting.”
Sometimes Van Ledtje feels stifled at school when teachers are too nervous about harnessing technology. Her advice? “Instead of being nervous someone is going to comment something mean or steal your identity, take a note from your students and ask them,” she says. “If you are going to spend your life being afraid of technology, you will never be able to use it for positive change.”
Spreading the word about tracking
Like Van Ledtje, Bah has used her knowledge to teach adults about living in a digital world. After her realization on the train that all those apps that people were looking at could be tracking them or listening to their conversations, she decided to take action. First, she surveyed her peers at school about what apps they used, how safe they considered the app and if they would continue to use the apps even if they realized they were unsafe. The answer was yes.
Bah then used Common Sense Media to evaluate the safety of her peers' apps. Besides tracking her location, apps also tracked her biometric health data, personally identifiable information, and search history and often sold her data to third parties.
With her research complete, she presented it to a group of students, teachers and parents. Her top tips for ensuring privacy online are:
1. Before you download an app, check Common Sense Media’s Privacy Evaluations to learn what you need to look out for with that app.
2. Use your agency to control your apps instead of letting them control you. In other words, control the app’s access to your information by turning off the microphone, not allowing access to photos, and not allowing apps to track your location.
3. You can always allow the use of these services on a situational basis. It may be a little inconvenient, but it is safer.
On Bah’s graduation day, she wanted to post her high school location but was momentarily annoyed that she had to go through some extra steps to get the app to see her location. She took a deep breath and realized it was worth the extra effort to stay safe.
She has shared what she learned in presentations to her peers, teachers and parents, including her own. Her family have all turned off access to their microphones on WhatsApp. She and her friends have turned off access to microphones and photos on Instagram and Snapchat.
Bah thinks teens can be valuable resources for adults on the positive use of technology. Kids today grow up knowing and understanding the potential dangers of online tracking, cyberbullying and misinformation. Bah and Van Ledtje have chosen to educate themselves about the digital world's messiness. Instead of fearing it, they connect with others positively and amplify their voices in educating others, including adults.
“We can be valuable resources for adults,” Bah says. “Since technology is evolving as we are growing. I remember reading a quote from the Salt Lake Tribune that said, ‘The best tool we have to protect our democracy is media literacy.’”
As a society, we can learn how to use tools to do all the good things they can do, such as inspire us, connect us and help us learn about the world around us, while still protecting our privacy and our mental health, guarding ourselves against disinformation, and advocating for society-wide protections from these dangers. Maybe kids can lead the way.