“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” I hear those words in my mind in my mother’s voice fifty years after she spoke them. Her lesson to me, for as long as I can remember, went beyond an admonition to keep my complaints to myself. She meant for me to be kind, to consider others’ perspectives with a generous heart, and to go out of my way to help others. My mother saw such niceties as the key to a humane world.
Yet, in this age of trash talk and the social equivalent of voting people off the island, I wonder how we can teach children to create the kind of humane society we want them to live in online. And to do that, I wonder how young should we begin training children in civil discourse in how to become the decent, responsible citizens who can positively influence the digital community they will inherit? I’d say, as soon as they plug in a digital device and go online.
First Steps as Digital Citizens
I love that Matt Gomez, teacher and blogger, addresses how students act online as an integrated part of his classroom as early as kindergarten. Also, I admire how the Vermont Schools have developed sequenced standards for digital citizenship that start as early as pre-K. Mary Beth Hertz writes about “Teaching Digital Citizenship in the Elementary Clssaroom,” while Google provides a “Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum” for middle-schoolers. Digital Citizenship Resources, a Livebinder notebook, nicely organizes a range of resources from big name providers like NetSmartz and Common Sense Media, as well as state governments and individuals, that could be used at any age.
One of the best resources I’ve come across lately is a set of “Digital Citizenship Flashcards” from A Platform for Good. The downloadable deck provides discussion starters for conversations about online safety, online privacy, online rights, online responsibilities, and digital and media literacy. I, for one, plan to try out this deck with my advisory of eight ten-year-old girls who are just starting to discover they kind of people they want to be, and who are prime targets for a digital citizenship education.
Adult Modeling Matters
But who is assuming the responsibility of starting these crucial conversations about digital decency at those early critical junctures with online culture? Who provides that needed introduction to the world of online interactions and relationships? When are these conversations going to happen, and who will initiate them? Are they happening soon enough?
Too often well-meaning parents and educators start and stop with lessons about online safety, or they only feed fears about predators and cyberbullying. I’m not saying we should ignore these things, but I worry that we are setting up kids to view the digital world in strictly black and white terms, either as a place uninhabited by caring and watchful adults and where anything goes or as a place so intimidating and scary, a kind of Internet Hell House, that young people should avoid at all costs.
Also disappointingly, many teachers and parents do not do the work of educating themselves about digital citizenship matters so that they can both model positive online behaviors and teach our children what they need to know to navigate the Internet safely and successfully.
To help solve the latter problem, Number 7 of the 21 Things 4 the 21st-Century Educator curriculum focuses on digital citizenship, providing teachers (and other adults) with good background information on the “Nine Themes of Digital Citizenship,” as well as acceptable use, and bullying. If this seems too teacher-focused, take a look at A Platform for Good’s blog, which directly targets a parent audience in search of a balanced view.
In the end, the best thing we can do as parents and educators is help our kids create a positive online presence. Can’t we first take care to model positive contributions to our shared online culture that children can learn from? Couldn’t we go a step further and teach children and teenagers how to create the kind of ethical and supportive community we want them to live in — for themselves, on the Internet, and then get out of the way so they can do it?
I believe we need to embrace opportunities to make that positive digital footprint, and we need to empower young learners to do the same. And we need to do it sooner rather than later.