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Digital Citizenship

We don’t just hand the car keys to a kid and expect that they will know the rules of the road and how to be safe behind the wheel. Yet that’s what we seem to have done with the Internet. Sure, we have parental blocks of certain sites and screen time limits when they’re little, but those restrictions are pretty much gone by the time they are in their tweens. But the ramifications of handing over the keys too soon to free roaming the internet can be just as costly as handing over the keys to the car too soon.

You Posted What?
I had an uncomfortable conversation with a parent. My kids follow her kid on Instagram, and me being that kind of parent, I thumbed through her account during a random check of my kid’s phone. She had video of herself drinking from a bottle of vodka with a straw, sexually explicit photos (from the internet, not of her) with captions such as, “[Boy’s Name] n me,” and a post of how she ran into her pastor while she was in an altered state. All well and good (not really) for a college girl of legal age, but she’s 13.

A friend’s family member is flunking out of private school because he opened an email address in his dad’s name and was excusing himself for all kinds of classes he missed. He didn’t do homework for most classes because he and his friends would use social media to post answers (and learn what drug was available for purchase that day and where). Clever kids with something to hide will show parents the dummy social media accounts, not the ones that can ruin their future.

There are a few things at work here with these and, I dare say, most kids: 1. Their developing brains don’t process the myriad of ways these posts can ruin their futures. 2. The pull for “likes” is stronger than the opportunity to make a responsible social media choice (go figure), even from a “good” kid from a “good” family. 3. They don’t think what they post matters. 4. Thank the gods that camera phones and the internet weren’t around when I was a teenager!

Facebook blew up with the June 5 Harvard Crimson article by Hannah Natanson about how Harvard rescinded their admissions offers to ten students because of their social media posts of memes (shared photos with text) that were racist, sexist, or generally in poor taste (i.e. dead baby jokes). Those are ten young people counting on that Harvard legacy who, because of their lack of judgement in posting dumb and hurtful content, are going to need to explain to the state school admissions their sudden interest.

The overarching term for all of this online social media posting is digital citizenship, and it’s begging for cultivation and parameters. It seems our current plan is to wing it, case by case. When pressed, a high-ranking DC Public Schools official admitted that this is something they haven’t approached, and said “we’ve done jack – less than jack” about it. With access to all information (and idiotic memes) comes awesome responsibility, and we’re not talking about it, or at least not enough. Yes, I’ve told my kids that what they post will be out there in the world forever. FOREVER. Even if it’s a post to Snapchat, which theoretically is supposed to evaporate, but not if someone screenshots it, makes it into a meme, and shares it with the world! Yes, I’ve told them, but you know how many times you have to tell your kids to pick up the stuff they’ve left on the floor before it actually gets picked up? It’s that many times we have to tell them to not post stuff that could be construed as something they wouldn’t want their grandmother to see (if their potential boss or future admissions clerk is too abstract a concept).

Shaky Foundations
Have you ever considered the effect of “likes” on children, when their self-worth is determined by how many likes their posts to Instagram have gotten? It’s hard to watch, when they post something and keep checking to see how many people like their post — the elation when the post is popular and the disappointment, bewilderment, and hurt feelings when it isn’t. This is all uncharted territory, for the most part, as we don’t have anything comparable in previous generations, but I think we can surmise know how it’ll work out. Shaky foundations, instability, fragile egos that seek external sources to prop them up. No bueno.

There’s pressure to fit in, like the 13 year old who, according to her mom, turned out to not be doing everything that she purported. She felt pressure to act like she was having sex and getting lit and posting about it in order to fit in with her friends who hopefully aren’t really doing all that stuff either.

Because my daughter was spending far too much time on her phone and not enough on reading, studying, and cleaning her room, my husband and I took her phone. (This is actually how I came to know about the aforementioned girl.) My kid was so much happier without it! Not at first, of course, but without the pressure of having to constantly respond to others’ posts, she was free. Suddenly there was time to draw and sculpt, and catch up on Cosmos (the science show, not the magazine, thank you). It was liberating for her. It’s hard for adults to effectively manage their time, let alone a kid with their still-developing brain.

Dr. Diane Smith, principal of Washington Latin, tried to tackle a chunk of this by paying students $100 out of her own pocket if they go phone-free every Tuesday during the summer. I guess if bribery is what it takes to kick the screen habit, then that’s what it shall be. I wouldn’t do it as a parent, but I applaud the intent!

Unfortunately, I think we now have another avenue of inequality among us. We know that all kids have cell phones, pretty much regardless of race, color, creed, and socioeconomic status. So what happens when kids from different backgrounds get in trouble because of what they posted?

A friend recently had a situation in which her child posted something inappropriate to social media. It was screen-grabbed, memed and shared, and the student was expelled after a hearing that the family was not informed of. The parents fought the expulsion — they lawyered up, demanded a new hearing and they won, eventually. The punishment was reduced to suspension. It was hell for the family as they fought for the future of their child who maintains an A grade point average, and is not a troublemaker in any way. But her suspension will be on her permanent record, and all for one split-second decision to post for a laugh, for a lack of judgement in digital citizenship.

While that’s great for them that they won, what about when that happens in a family that can’t afford a lawyer, or a family in which the parents don’t speak English? What if the student has no one to advocate for her when the school system attempts to make an example of her? And further, where do school systems post their policies about inappropriate posts, and the consequences for violating them? My kids are in DCPS schools. For the life of me, I couldn’t find any policy about online misbehavior and the consequences for violating them (whatever they are). I found some guidance for staff, but none for students. They must exist, right? So again, the most doggedly involved parents will pursue justice for their students, while a family with limited ability to navigate the system is probably going to be stuck with whatever consequence is handed to them. [Note: I ended up tracking down the written policies for digital citizenship through DCPS’ Office of the General Council so that I may add it to Eliot-Hine’s student handbook. It wasn’t hard to get — it took two phone calls and an email, but I would think it should be readily searchable on their website.]

This inequality is another reason why we need to have Internet boundaries for kids — for all kids. We can’t allow one mistake that a kid makes — one bad decision — to alter their course. But how do we go about this? I would suggest that there be a standard curriculum introduced to kids in every school, starting when they’re young. Even though you’re not supposed to have social media accounts until age 13, that isn’t followed. So let’s start in 1st or 2nd grade with the simple message: what you put on the Internet matters, and keep saying it every so often. Broaden the scope of the message as they mature. Content should reflect the times, so let’s make sure there are stories in English Language Arts that will support the message. That way, no matter what the advocacy level at home, all children will have access to the information that may save them (and others) from Internet backlash.

One Kid at a Time
Maybe working together as parents and educators, we can cultivate good digital citizens and avoid the social media posts metaphorically wrapping the car around a tree. Open the line of communication, and let your kids know you’re present. There are several online resource guides for talking to your kid about responsible social media behaviors. Here are a few to start with. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0006-talk-your-kids



Heather Schoell is a Capitol Hill parent of two teenagers, and is not afraid of being the bad guy if it means that Harvard isn’t off the table. Advocating for the life success of all students is her thing.

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