In her excellent book, Digital and Media Literacy, Renee Hobbs discusses the importance of learning to be responsible digital citizens. Hobbs encourages teachers to engage students in discussions of power and responsibility as a communication competency in the digital age. As I was reading a recent news report about a girl who apparently committed suicide after years of cyberbullying and victimization by an adult predator, I was reminded how important issues of media literacy are in the social and emotional lives of children and adolescents.
The story of Amanda Todd, a Canadian teenager, is heartbreaking. It’s the story of a girl who started to use the internet to connect with people and ended up being targeted by an adult predator who used the internet to victimize and intimidate her. Teens and tweens who spend time online may have heard about Amanda’s story, and need to talk about it.
Suicide, Bullying & Depression
It’s important if you talk with your tweens and teens about this and other stories involving suicide, that you do so carefully. Sensationalizing or glamorizing the situation or person can lead to risk. Instead, focus on the ways that a child can protect themselves from being victimized online, can be sure that they are not participating in cyberbullying, and provide resources for seeking help for themselves and their friends.
It’s important to talk with kids about resources to seek help if they or a friend are bullied and brainstorm about the people in their lives who can help them deal with difficult situations like bullying and depression. The SAVE website provides resources for talking with children about suicide. The American Psychological Association has information and resources on both suicide and bullying. This includes a good Q&A with bullying expert Dr. Susan Swearer. The National Association of School Psychologists has a helpful PDF that provides information about depression in children and adolescents.
It is vital that adults talk with any child old enough to use a computer about how to use the Internet safely, how to be a responsible digital citizen, and how to respond to cyberbullying. If you have a child who is 10 or above, you MUST begin having these conversations right now.
A good place to begin is with a basic talk about digital citizenship. Computer mediated communication has a way of making us feel anonymous, invulnerable, and often leads us to do or say things that we would never do off-line. So, how do kids learn to make good behavioral choices online? In his book lol…OMG!, Matt Ivester provides some tests to help kids learn to judge if their behavior online is appropriate or not. These include:
- The Golden Rule and The Golden Rule 2.0: Are you treating others the way that you would want to be treated? What about the way they would want to be treated? Ivester points out that we need to consider the other person’s perspective, which is a hallmark of media literacy training. Teach kids to ask, “Even if I wouldn’t care, would that person want me sharing that information/photo/ etc?” Will it cause others to treat them in a certain way?
- The Everybody Test: In this step, ask the child, “What if everybody was doing what you’re doing?” Ivester points out that something may seem small until you consider what would happen if a lot of people were involved. For example, in Amanda Todd’s case, she describes in a video how people left cruel messages on her Facebook page. One cruel message may be hurtful, but an avalanche of them is devastating.
- The Real Name test is one that young people need to think hard about. Often they engage in trolling or bullying anonymously. Would they engage in this same behavior if they were identified by name? If you’re not willing to put your own name to an online behavior, then you shouldn’t be doing it at all.
- The Whole World Test: Would you be willing to engage in a certain behavior if the whole world knew that you were doing it, including your parents, grandparents, teachers, etc? I like this one because it helps kids think about their behavior from multiple perspectives.
Strategies for Keeping Kids Safe on the Internet
Here are some tips from the National Association of School Psychologists for parents about keeping children safe on the Internet.
- Explain to older children and adolescents the potential hazards of online sexual solicitation and the risks associated with Internet communication with strangers. Younger children may not need as detailed a discussion, but should be cautioned about the dangers of talking to people they do not know.
- Discuss the dangers of face-to-face contact with someone met online
- Teach your child to avoid sending personally identifying information (e.g., real name, address, school, telephone number, photos, family member names) via the Internet.
- Install a firewall (e.g., Norton Personal Firewall), privacy filtration software (e.g., Net Nanny5), anti-adware/spyware (e.g., Ad-Aware), and an antivirus program (e.g., Norton antivirus).
- Encrypt your wireless home network.
- Discourage your child from downloading games and other media which could contain Trojan and worm programs that enable remote access to computers by unauthorized users.
- Supervise/monitor Internet friends in a fashion similar to how neighborhood and school friends are monitored.
- Monitor the amount of time your child spends online and frequently check the computer’s Web browsers, which provide information on the websites that have been accessed.
- Set the Internet browser (e.g., Internet Explorer) security feature to “high.”
- Understand and approve children’s screen names—predators target sexually suggestive screen names.
- Place computer in a public location such as a den as opposed to a child’s bedroom.
Children, adolescents, and young people today are growing up in a digital age, but many of them are not aware of the very real dangers connected with the thoughtless use of digital media and social networks. It is imperative that adults spend time talking with the kids in their lives about the fact that when digital content is shared, they have lost control over it, and it can be saved and shared in ways they never intended. Being aware of the challenges involved in building and maintaining a positive online reputation, knowing how to respond to online bullying, and knowing how to seek help are all important new communication competencies in a digital age.
I urge you to open up the lines of communication about online behavior with the young people in your life. The goal is to help them begin to think purposefully about their online behavior and prepare them for dealing with the score of challenges and benefits that exist in this brave new world.
Hobbs, Renee (2011). Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom. Corwin: CA.
Ivester, M. (2012). lol…OMG!: What every student needs to know about online reputation management, digital citizenship, and cyberbullying. Serra Knight: NV.