Schools add lessons in Internet etiquette and safety
Teachers aim to produce better ‘digital citizens’
By Greg Toppo USA TODAY
As more students spend large chunks of study and leisure time online, schools across the USA are adding coursework focused on privacy, cyberbullying and electronic plagiarism.
Many schools not only are incorporating Internet safety into lesson plans but also shifting their focus from the pervasive “stranger danger” message typically given to young computer users.
The idea, says Principal Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, is teaching students to be better “digital citizens.” Freshmen at his public high school are required to take a course in how to watch their digital footprint — in other words, to be careful what they say on the Internet.
“All of the drama, all of the growing up, all of the growing pains, all of the things we know happen in high school now also happen digitally,” Lehmann says. “Think of every mistake you made as a teenager. Now imagine making that mistake in a permanent public forum.”
Many schools around the country have adopted similar coursework. At Schwenksville Elementary School near Philadelphia, librarian Joan Curtis teaches fifth-graders how to recognize bogus websites using a fake but realistic “Librarian of the Year” site she created.
At Gresham-Barlow Web Academy, a charter middle- and high school near Portland, Ore., all middle-schoolers are required to take an online safety course that covers topics including cyberbullying, plagiarism and online “ethical behavior,” Principal Michael Harris says.
The digital training comes as research shows that Web usage is virtually ubiquitous among kids. Though most students say they generally access the Internet from home, 75% of teens say they go online at school, too.
New findings show that even young children spend time online.
A national survey released in October by the non-profit Common Sense Media found that 41% of children 8 and younger have access to a smart-phone and 13% have spent time on social networking sites and virtual worlds.
Schools teach students to be wary of whom they meet online.
Harris says educators are concerned about older students as well as younger ones. “Even though they’re 15, 16 years old, they’re still pretty vulnerable,” he says.
Handing a kid a computer without safety training is a bit like handing over a car and expecting a driver to emerge, says Barbara-Jane Paris, principal of Canyon Vista Middle School in Austin.
“We put child locks on the cabinets when they’re 2. . . . We make them wear bike helmets. We make them wear seat belts. You can’t just throw a kid a computer and say, ‘Go learn.’ That’s like handing a 15-year-old car keys and saying, ‘Go teach yourself to drive.’ ”
The pervasive idea that “digital natives” born during or after the early 1990s inherently understand how to navigate online is a dangerous one, Paris and others say. Kids may be more sophisticated about technology — many can program a TV remote or extract lost text messages from the black box of a parent’s cellphone — but they need instruction in how to incorporate the Internet safely and productively into their lives, Paris and others say.
Research released last month by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that most teens who use social media sites witness “meanness and cruelty” online — 90% say they’ve ignored “mean behavior” on a social network site — but that the majority of teens say their peers are “mostly kind to one another.”
Paris says the biggest challenge may be teaching kids to confront the few peers who misbehave.
She says most kids are acutely aware of who the school cyberbullies are.
Paris, a longtime volunteer for a national cyberbullying prevention program, says that whenever she visits a high school to speak to students, she prepares by scanning Facebook for hostile comments by students.
In an auditorium packed with 2,000 young people, she’ll quote anonymously — no names attached — from bullies’ postings, then look out at the audience. “Immediately, everybody turns and looks at those people,” she says. “This whole ‘Nobody knows who it is,’ that’s very rare. People know who they are.” Like many educators, Harris says ethics are front-and-center in his school’s online safety education. “One of the things we talk about is . . . doing the right thing when nobody’s looking,” Harris says.