A teacher notes that a student looks uncharacteristically pale and avoids eye contact with her classmates. When asked privately if she’s OK, the girl bursts into tears, sharing a weekend-long saga of harsh criticism delivered via emails, chats and texts.
Initially the emails were about what she was wearing, then digital comments ricocheted from one person to another, adding cruel references about her hair and weight. While the comments were awful, the public airing was even more devastating. I call this process magnification. The teacher later investigates and discovers that the girl who sent out the first message is also shocked by the way things escalated.
This situation will sound familiar to lots of teachers. On a regular basis, we hear that our students are making cruel comments or expressing hidden biases about a child’s appearance, race, size or sexual identity. But the public exposure in today’s world moves these interactions with lightning speed as they are shared with others. Helping students deal with hurtful behavior—and sometimes protecting them from it—is part of an educator’s job. Helping students think about digital actions beforehand is much harder.
Even the students who initiate the bullying behavior are genuinely bewildered and contrite. Most are not cyber-bullies, habitual gossips or unconcerned friends. They are just kids who had no idea about the potential for their actions to go so wrong.
Part of our job as teachers, then, is to help students understand how little privacy they have in their lives. This is especially true online when it looks like no one is watching. We must teach children and adolescents to make judgment calls. Students must know that their instant actions affect others.
Congress is considering legislation to protect children’s online privacy. But we cannot fall back on wishful thinking about privacy legislation, because even the most up-to-date and stringent laws can’t protect children when their own activities veer in the wrong direction.
While much is good about the connected, information-rich world, we educators need to redouble our efforts to help students understand the risks of digital communication. As we infuse technology into the curriculum, teaching about transparency and the speed of the digital world is critical.
With fifth-graders I use the phrase “stop, think and connect,” sharing a short video by the same name. I remind students that the digital world has no child-friendly erasers to vanquish impulsive or reactive comments. Teaching Tolerance also offers Barbara Gruener’s exercise on respect. It can easily be adjusted for older students.
The Greek myth about Pandora’s Box illustrates, for students of almost any age, how difficult it is to control things once they escape into the world. And older middle and high school students will learn a lot from this digital dossier video, made at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
We teach children to apologize when something goes wrong, but in the digital world, hurt and humiliation may mean that an apology is only the beginning of a recovery—even when the mistake is modest. Although childhood is a time for spontaneity, educators must continually identify ways to help students understand the lack of privacy and the need for self-restraint in their digital lives.
Weston is a middle school technology teacher in Washington, D.C.