Educator voice: How digital citizenship helps keep youth safe and productive online

Dorothy S. Bass


The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) wrapped up its annual three-day virtual conference Sunday. Diana Graber, who spoke at NAMLE this year, is the founder of Cyberwise, an organization specializing in preparing students to be “ethical, safe, and productive digital citizens.”

Graber is the author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship With Technology (Amacom 2019). At the time of her book’s release, Graber spoke with PBS NewsHour Classroom to discuss parenting and teaching in the digital age.

This interview has been slightly edited for length.

Q: Why is “digital citizenship” so important?

A: It’s elementary. We know how to be a good citizen in the real world. And then the online world came along and all of a sudden people were faceless and you didn’t know who you were talking to. For some reason, we thought that we could leave all those good manners of civility at the door and not use them online.

I think what we’ve discovered is that we miss those things online and that they make the online world better and safer when we’re civil. We need to take time to think about what that means and how to apply those skills and strategies online. And that’s really what cyber civics teaches. It teaches kids how to be the same good citizens they are offline, online.

Q:  Let’s talk about bans and limits on screen time. Why does that seem to backfire so badly for parents who are trying desperately to do a good job? 

A: Well, screens are everywhere. You know, it’s really hard to ban something that’s so ubiquitous. You might tell your kid there’s no screen time at home, and then they’ll go to their friend’s house and there’s screens. They’ll go to grandma’s house and there’s screens there. So what I really argue in the book is that we have to equip kids with skills and understanding of why they should learn to balance their own screen time. And there’s a few ways to do that.

“We have to equip kids with skills and understanding of why they should learn to balance their own screen time.”

When kids start getting older they don’t really like other people telling them what to do. So when they understand that that’s basically what their screens are doing, their screens have mechanisms built into them to capture their attention or to trick them into wanting to log on more, that makes kids skeptical of their devices, and then all of a sudden they start being a little more cognizant of how they spend their time.

Someone’s just gotta tell them that, hey, that device might seem like a lot of fun, but here’s why…  Just teach them the stuff that’s going on, you know? And then they become critical thinkers of their digital tools.

Q: How do you define cyberbullying? Why is it important that students know the difference between cyberbullying and other things that go on online?

A: You can identify cyberbullying because it’s online, it’s intentional, it’s hurtful, and it’s ongoing. And also we talk about the difference between cyberbullying and what we call “digital drama” — which is kids just, you know, post a sleepover and the kid not invited sees the post and their feelings are hurt. Well, that’s not cyber bullying. It’s just as hurtful or it could be just as hurtful to that person as an actual cyberbullying incident.

So, you know, the purpose of showing the kids the difference between the two is to have them understand that both are hurtful. But in the real serious cyberbullying instance, that’s something a school should deal with.

What I hate to see is when there’s digital drama and maybe the perpetrator of digital drama is labeled as a cyberbully — that’s a heavy label. I don’t think that we want to go around calling every kid a cyberbully when what they’re engaging in is the teasing or the kind of not-so-nice behavior that’s been normal for teenagers for many, many years.

Q: You have a great story in the book about a group of preschool teachers. Could you recount it for our audience? 

A: The first half of the book is really about how to help kids lay a strong foundation in order to be good digital citizens. And so I tell the story about a tech conference that I attended in Los Angeles, and I ended up having lunch with some preschool teachers, and they were very excited telling me about all the iPads they had in the classrooms with their three- and four-year-olds, and it was transforming their classroom and it was really great.

They said it allowed them to get rid of all of their manipulatives. (I think manipulatives are teacher code for toys.) So I was pretty aghast at that. I actually came home and, I don’t write this in the book, but I called the school on Monday because I kind of didn’t believe it. I pretended to be a mom interested in the school, and lo and behold, they confirmed that that was the case.

Nearly every digital expert you’re going to interview will tell you that the most essential skills are social and behavioral skills, and those are best learned offline.

I thought about that long and hard because I know that a lot of parents are concerned that their kids aren’t going to be tech-ready if they’re not with their fingers on the devices from age two and up. But the thing is about kids, they don’t need our help pushing the buttons. Leave a 10-year-old alone in a room with an iPhone, and they’ll know more about it in 10 minutes than many of us ever will. But what they really need our help with is the wisdom to bring to these devices.

The problems that we’re seeing online are really related to kids not having the developmental and social skills to be good citizens online, because everything they do online requires ethical thinking, and those skills really take time to develop and grow. Nearly every digital expert you’re going to interview will tell you that the most essential skills are social and behavioral skills, and those are best learned offline. Those are the skills that we bring to technology that teach us how to use it safely, powerfully and productively.


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