School Climate & Safety

Could a Cybercivility Task Force Tackle Tacky Selfies?

By Evie Blad — February 11, 2014 2 min read
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Before I tell you about a new “Cybercivility” task force, let me share some additional evidence that talking to young people about what constitutes appropriate online behavior might be necessary.

Today’s viral internet thing is a Tumblr called “Selfies With Homeless People,” which is, well, exactly what it sounds like.

The site’s creator is Jason Feifer, who also created “Selfies at Funerals,” which is also exactly what it sounds like. Feifer has developed a pretty big following for his ability to curate insensitive social media content from various corners of the internet (not all of it created by children and teens). Seeing the images all put together in a website designed to shame the creators, people are reacting with disgust, anger, and predictable comments about how terrible millenials are. But none of those concepts seem to stop young people from snapping photos in front of other human beings in a very inhumane way.

Educators, enthused about social-emotional learning and developing empathy, have a natural interest in discussing these issues with their students. But that interest grows stronger when students turn inappropriate online activity toward each other. In recent years, states around the country have passed cyberbullying statutes, requiring school districts to set policies for addressing online postings that interfere with the learning environment, even if those postings were made outside of the school day. And some districts have even faced lawsuits.

All of this gives context to an effort by Maryland’s Montgomery County district to form a Cybercivility Task Force. Made up of community members and parents, the task force will “develop strategies to raise awareness of the need for cybercivility in how MCPS students and adults communicate online. It will also guide the creation of tools for schools, parents, and community members that encourage conversations about cybercivility,” the district said in a news release.

“The Cybercivility Task Force will be a critical resource in our ongoing efforts to help our students understand how to use technology and social media appropriately,” Superintendent Joshua Starr, an active Twitter user, said in the news release. “This work isn’t easy, but it is my hope that we can help school communities and families talk about how to use social media in positive and productive ways.”

You may remember Starr as the superintendent who published an open letter to the community after he received death threats on Twitter from students who were demanding a snow day. I referenced that letter in this earlier post about students’ online behavior.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of strategies the district’s task force develops to address inappropriate online behavior. A random sampling of news stories shows that the mere threat of discipline by schools isn’t enough to stop some students, and punishment can sometimes be problematic. A school suspension for a Facebook post made off of school grounds raises some free speech concerns. So what can schools do to positively encourage positive online behavior? And what can they do to develop the critical thinking in students that is necessary to make them pause for a second before posting that selfie? It’s clearly a topic that needs further exploration.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.