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Opinion: Digital Citizenship Skills for Kids Are a Must

How should schools prepare digital natives — children who have never known a world without social media and personal digital devices — for the world wide web? Half a dozen principles can help guide the conversation.

It can be a little mind-blowing for older generations to witness the ease with which children navigate the digital world. Their comfort with social media can lead adults to believe kids are well-equipped to thrive online. However, ease of use does not equal maturity to navigate potentially unsafe social media situations. Kids need guidance from trusted adults — at school and at home — to become safe and responsible digital citizens.

Generation Z is the first generation to grow up never knowing a world without social media and its potential for addictive and toxic behavior. Among other things, it feeds harsh judgment and engagement metrics to teens who are just beginning to explore their self-image.

We can hope that Generation Alpha, who are currently small children, might have a better experience with some preparation for digital media and citizenship. Both generations are referred to as digital natives — children who are deeply familiar with technology from a young age.

Like so many things, addressing this topic will require a strong bond between children, families and schools. Engaging parents in talks about digital citizenship can help these skills become part of children’s everyday scrolling and posting, which would arguably have the most impact in protecting them online.

The following six principles can help adults provide students with a basic knowledge of what is and isn’t OK to do online. If sharing these with children, be prepared to define terms that are common knowledge to adults but kids might be encountering for the first time — for example, one might use “data” to mean information shared online, but a student might not have that definition in mind.

1. A child’s image and personal identifying information belong to them. They have a right to keep them private.

For many children, their digital presence begins before birth if their parents choose to post on social media. Children may already have years of digital presence before they’re aware of it or know how to manage it.

Children may not understand personal identifying information. This includes data like full name, date of birth, address, phone number, email address and other contact information. They should know these things can be risky to share online.

As children begin to grow up and realize what their digital footprints look like, they may need to have conversations with family. They have a right to privacy, which includes the right to request photos not be shared on parents’ social media. This is at odds with some parent-child relationships. Students may benefit from learning the value of online privacy for themselves, and also from sharing that information with a parent who hasn’t yet considered the importance of their child’s long-term digital presence.

2. What kids share doesn’t stop where they share it. Someone could take their posts and information and spread them around.

Some elementary school teachers, as in this account from Minnesota, have showed the reality of information spreading online by posting a public photo and asking it to be shared widely, then tracking its progress through the world via comments. While this does a great job of showing kids how information spreads far and wide quickly, make sure they understand the point that sharing could have serious consequences if instead of a fun picture, it’s personal information or something mean about a friend, for example.

3. Their data will be used to sell them things. Advertisers mine user data to get to know what they like — and what they might buy.

Gone are the days when kids were solely marketed to via television commercials of shiny toys and sugary cereals. Now websites track their navigation of the Internet using cookies. These bite-sized bits of code help advertisers specifically target individuals with ads.

This may seem harmless on the surface, but consider the volume of data we give up for free. It’s extremely valuable, and it’s worth considering whether it is OK to track or better to adjust privacy settings.

4. People on the Internet are not always kind. They are not always representations of people’s best selves.

With online bullying, one method that can make a difference on a large scale is to communicate to students that the Internet is real life. Sometimes humans treat each other differently when we aren’t face to face — but the reality is, another person is reading what you send online.

Children experience online bullying more often than we think, and some have even resorted to digital self-harm: posing as someone else online to post hurtful things about themselves. Adults can help a child who is engaging in this behavior as with other self-harm: by treating it in an open and compassionate way. Just because it happens online doesn’t mean it isn’t real, and really hurtful.

5. People on the Internet are not always truthful. Dangerous people pretend to be someone they aren’t to befriend someone they shouldn’t.

Online games, social media apps and other spaces geared toward children are not immune from adults pretending to be a peer. While it can be difficult to discuss this in a way that’s informational but not alarming, kids are equipped to deal with the reality of tricky people. Teach them not to accept every friend request at face value, and to limit their contact list to people they have met first in real life. A new friend should never ask for an address or photos of them — and they don’t have to share any information with anyone, ever.

6. A trusted adult can help kids navigate the Internet. If anything kids see online makes them uncomfortable, they should tell an adult they trust.

Finally, navigating the Internet together keeps children safer than going it alone.

Indicate to students that trusted adults throughout the school — whether it’s a teacher, instructional coach, administrative assistant or lunch server — are all good choices to report any uncomfortable online behavior to. Devote time during staff meetings to online safety, including the chain of reporting if online activity is flagged by a student.

Not only could digital vigilance make a huge difference to a struggling individual, it can also be a matter of school safety.

Digital citizenship doesn’t have to be daunting, although it can challenge some deeply held beliefs. Children have a right to learn how to control their presence online, and adults can empower them to do so with the six principles listed above.

Erin Werra is a writer at Skyward’s Advancing K12 blog. She spent years learning and tutoring at public schools and universities, then went on to study the inner workings of leadership practice, learning data, social-emotional learning and ed tech in K-12 schools. In addition to observing education trends, she volunteers as an adult literacy tutor and helps students gain job-seeking skills.