Helping Kids Avoid Digital Mistakes

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.


This author hit it right on

Submitted by Rachel on 13 November 2011 - 1:38pm.

This author hit it right on the nose. I recently watched the ABC Family movie “Cyberbullying.” I was heartbroken at the harsh things those kids were saying and doing to that poor girl over the internet. Kids these days really don’t have a private life because everything is posted on the internet via facebook, twitter, email, etc. Even texting is a big part of these children’s lives, which to me is outrageous. I see most cyberbullying in middle school aged children, between ages 12 and 15. I believe it is increasing more into younger children because they have more opportunities and access to the internet these days. I think children should be taught more of the harmful effects of, not only cyberbullying, but all bullying.

I agree with the author that

Submitted by Juanita Richburg Seon on 15 November 2011 - 11:47pm.

I agree with the author that it is important to help children understand that the old verse, "sticks and stones may break my bones, words can never hurt me" is not true. Words do hurt and when they travel around the world it hurts even more. The world is growing smaller by the day and we are all connected.