Over the years, I’ve worked hard to teach my students about appropriate online behavior. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching students to “do this” or “don’t do that” online. While I feel this method works for younger students, I’ve come to realize that high school students require a different approach. Older students don’t respond well to lecturing and finger-pointing. For something to stick, they need to draw their own conclusions. Therefore, we need to guide them, not preach to them.
That’s easier said than done. Finding new tactics for teaching digital
citizenship is difficult because most educator resources don’t stray far from
the traditional "Thou shalt not!" approach. That’s what prompted me to look for my
own resources. In doing so, I came up with a three-pronged approach that engages
my students in discussions about digital citizenship rather than patronizing
After seeing firsthand a few students lose college scholarships due to
senseless mistakes on social media, I decided to look for videos or materials
that would focus on what happens if students don’t stop and think about what
they do online. I found just what I was looking for at Netsmartz
Workshop, a program created by the National Center for Missing &
Exploited Children, which provides age-appropriate resources for teaching
students how to be safe on- and offline.
The video below, called “2 Kinds of Stupid,” perfectly illustrates the
consequences of posting inappropriate content online.
The three-minute animation tells the tale of Edvardo, a good student and
champion swimmer who’s primed to win a college athletic scholarship — until he
takes selfies of himself drinking at a party and posts them on Facebook. He
doesn’t make his pictures “private,” so everyone can see them, including his
coach, teammates, parents and principal. Ultimately, the consequences are stiff.
He gets kicked off the swim team and suspended from school, and he loses any
chance of earning a college scholarship. My students, who are competitive by
nature and want to be successful, could identify with the student who made bad
choices and paid a very high price.
The next step is to tap into students’ natural empathy. Again, I like to
share scenarios that my students can relate to. I start by telling the story of
two best friends who unwittingly find themselves in a cyberbullying predicament.
One girl buys a new swimming suit and posts a picture on social media of herself
wearing it. The suit is unflattering and not a good fit, so the best friend
posts under the picture, “Did you check the size?” Numerous mean-spirited
comments follow. The best friend feels awful because she didn’t mean for her
comment to spur such a humiliating response.
After asking students what the friend could have done differently, hands shot
into the air from students eager to offer solutions. One student felt the girl
who inadvertently wrote the hurtful comment should pick up the phone and call
her friend to apologize. Another student suggested that someone post a nice
comment, and another said someone should stand up for the girl.
That prompted a lengthy discussion. When you feel that pang of empathy, do
you stick up for the student being bullied, ignore it or join in?
Using a literary reference that I knew students would appreciate, I reminded
them of a well-known quote by Dumbledore in the book Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer’s Stone. After the character Neville tries to stop his friends from
doing something undoubtedly dangerous, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore
acknowledges Neville’s act of courage when he says, “It takes a great deal of
bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our
Teaching identity strength
Let’s face it: Cyberbullying is serious and it’s happening every day in our
schools. But when adults constantly toss out slogans like “Be a buddy, not a
bully,” or post signs designating “Bully-free zones,” the words begin to lose
their impact. Just as in the 1970s, when antidrug campaigns were scoffed at by
the very people they were targeting, anti-bullying campaigns are also losing
their effectiveness. I got a taste of this firsthand last year when I spoke
about sexting, online safety and cyberbullying at an all-school assembly. When a
student blurted out an obscenity during the sexting portion, the students went
wild and didn’t listen to a thing I said. I was frustrated and discouraged.
Later, I offered an iPad mini to the student who produced the best video and
poster. Even that got little response.
The fact is, anti-bullying clichés have become a shut-off switch. What we
really need to be doing is giving students actual skills to prevent bullying. To
get that conversation going, I pose this question to students: “Will you accept
the identity that others give you?”
Few students have thought of the problem this way before. Allowing them to
discuss their vision for life and empowering them to reject the vision others
try to give them is key. It’s important to talk about someone they can relate to
who had a vision and was successful. For this, I talk about Steve Jobs and how
he never let anyone interfere with his vision for technology. Lady Gaga has also
spoken pointedly about being bullied in school by kids who called her “ugly” and
laughed at the way she dressed and sang. But she followed her vision to
Give students a voice
Allowing students to be involved in the conversation is
the most important part of digital citizenship education. You can do this by
posing questions in a class discussion or, to encourage more frank conversation,
you can use online interactive polling software, such as Socrative or Poll Everywhere.
I did this by asking students at an assembly to get on their phones or
laptops to answer some questions, while stressing that their answers would
absolutely be anonymous. Then I asked questions like:
- Have you ever done something inappropriate online?
- Do you know someone who’s done something
- Have you been bullied online?
More than 90 percent of the students participating in the assembly answered
the poll questions. As I showed the results, students shouted questions like,
“What do you mean by inappropriate?” “How can you tell someone anonymously if
you know someone is being bullied?”
Students were engaged and eager to talk, and the discussion was frank and
educational — for both students and staff. No shame, no finger-pointing, no
condescending admonishments. After all, these students are about to go out into
the world, it’s important that we not just educate them academically but prepare
them for their lives.
This is an updated version of an article that was published on Oct. 23, 2014.
Cynde Reneau is the director of technology at the Pan American School of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil, and her next assignment will be in Chengdu, China, where she will be director of technology and innovation at Leman International School. She has been involved with technology integration for over 20 years. She is an ISTE presenter, an Apple Certified Trainer and a Google Certified Educator.