Imagine a 5th grade sleepover party where, inevitably, someone gets left out. So far, a typical elementary school experience. Because it’s 2015, the children post photos of the party on Instagram, and the child sitting at home gets her feelings badly hurt. On Monday, the principal receives a call from that child’s parents about a cyberbullying incident, and teachers and administrators spend the whole week responding to parents and sorting out the children’s experiences. But this isn’t cyberbullying; it’s just poor etiquette in the digital realm, and it all could have been avoided if the kids had practiced safe and respectful online behavior.
Young people urgently need guidance on thoughtful, ethical, and responsible digital-media use. For the most part, we as a society are not providing educators—who are feeling the fallout from new media—with the resources and the support to take up the challenge. What’s needed is policy change to ensure that the resources are there.
Children are handed powerful, connected devices by parents and schools at younger and younger ages. The messages and media that children are consuming, creating, and sending connect them to their friends and the world, and allow new opportunities for self-expression, but can also have negative and sometimes life-changing consequences.
In most states, the policy approach has been to criminalize cyberbullying and require schools to install filtering tools to ensure children aren’t seeing harmful or unsavory images or prevent the use of potentially troublesome social-media apps. Simply blocking these apps rather than actually preparing children for this new world is shortsighted. Meanwhile, blocking and filtering is just ineffective: Schools experience breaches, and kids access media via smartphones and tablets outside of school.
Lawmakers in Utah have taken the lead in this new world by enacting a law earlier this year that requires schools to provide opportunities to learn safe technology use and “digital citizenship.” The legislation builds on laws requiring internet safety and social-media instruction in Illinois and New Jersey. Lessons on digital citizenship help youths learn norms of appropriate, responsible, and healthy behavior, such as: what’s appropriate to share online and why privacy matters; how comments on anonymous social-media apps may hurt others; and what message youths are sending to a potentially worldwide audience when they post videos of bad behavior. This digital citizenship is a key subset of the comprehensive media-literacy skills that students need today.
State Rep. Keven Stratton, a Republican from Provo, introduced the Utah bill out of concern that schools in his state are handing out digital devices without also providing the tools to use them appropriately. “This is an all-hands-on-deck issue,” he told me by phone just after the state Senate gave final approval to his bill. “We need to wake up.” Implementation is still to be seen, of course, but by having already secured funding, Utah has ensured this important issue won’t be regarded as another burdensome unfunded mandate.
Simply blocking these apps rather than actually preparing children for this new world is shortsighted."
We know that digital-citizenship education works. The Journey School in Aliso Viejo, a small Southern California city, is an example of a digital-citizenship success story. Since instituting a three-year middle school series on digital citizenship, information literacy on evaluation of online sources, and media-literacy courses to teach critical-thinking skills around media texts of all kinds—music videos, film, print advertising—the school has nearly eliminated bullying and behavioral issues and significantly boosted standardized-test scores. “What has been a small investment has paid off tenfold,” says Shaheer Faltas, the Journey School principal who instituted the program.
Certainly, parents also have a role to play here. But many parents are overwhelmed by the digital devices in their families’ lives and the constantly changing landscape of social media. Parents lack digital-citizenship skills, too. To return to the sleepover example, parents allow a group of 10-year-olds to use their smartphones without supervision, and then other parents escalate the problem by reporting cyberbullying to the schools. In another example, parents might post photos or information about their own children publicly without considering the long-term ramifications for a child’s grown-up digital footprint or sense of privacy and autonomy.
The potential positives from our interconnected world, and access to information, are far-reaching and exciting. But there are consequences to the mistakes that children will make, and it’s neither fair nor right to leave them on their own in this new online world. It’s time to stop just letting the digital wave happen, but rather take an active, engaged approach to the 21st-century education of our children and ourselves by teaching media literacy in all its forms, including, most urgently, digital citizenship. Let’s follow Utah’s lead.