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Teaching students to be good citizens in a digital age

Earlier this year, middle school teacher Diana Graber’s 16-year-old daughter popped her head into Graber’s office asking for advice.

Her concern wasn’t about school or boys but, to Graber’s surprise, Instagram.

“She’d taken this shot of herself and she wanted to know if she should post it,” Graber said.

The photo was fairly standard fare for Instagram — a picture of Graber’s daughter in a bathing suit. The two considered the angle and what Graber’s daughter was trying to accomplish with the photo. In the end, the photo was posted with some editing input from Graber and her daughter went on with her day.

“A 16-year-old asking for guidance posting an Instagram — I consider that a major victory,” Graber said. “Kids today know a lot more about technology than their parents do, and we can’t talk at them about this because we don’t get it.”

For many kids and teens who grow up with social media and parents who don’t always understand it, knowing what’s safe and what’s not can be difficult. When her daughter was younger, Graber says she feared that her daughter could get into trouble online and Graber wouldn’t know how to help her. Like many parents, she vaguely understood the notions of cyberbullying or how a photo or status update could impact her child’s future job or college application prospects, but she wasn’t sure how to prevent them from happening.

Graber turned her fears into an educational opportunity. She went back to UCLA and got her master’s degree in media psychology and social change and six years ago, wrote the curriculum of a three-year weekly program she calls Cyber Civics.

Written for grades six through eight, Cyber Civics covers a wide breadth of skills needed for the digital world, including respectful communication skills, sourcing accurate information, and forming a responsible digital footprint in the form of thinking before posting photos or comments online. So far, it’s been picked up by 23 schools across four states. Graber’s daughter took the course when she attended Journey School in Aliso Viejo, Calif., where Graber teaches.

“I was right there with her when she was 13 and she got on social media, so she’s used to having me in her digital world,” Graber said. “It’s how we’ve parented offline for ages — giving input and being present in their decisions.”

Graber’s program has great timing for schools that must integrate digital literacy training to align with newly adopted Common Core standards, which require students to not only learn how the Internet works, but how to use it responsibly and safely.

But Graber says the program is also a good learning opportunity for parents and families who feel overwhelmed by technology their children pick up naturally.

“We’re at the moment where this (education) has to happen for both parents and kids to be comfortable and safe in the digital world,” Graber said. “This is our moment.”

The sweet spot

At a time when children are sometimes exposed to technology before they can walk or talk, it may seem counterintuitive to delay teaching kids digital conduct and best practices until middle school.

But understanding actions and long-term consequences — like how an unflattering photo could hurt future job prospects — is a form of reasoning that starts developing around age 12, making middle school the developmental “sweet spot” to introduce Cyber Civics, Graber says.

“Kids spend more time with media than they do in school or with their parents. It’s crazy not to talk about the world they’re in,” Graber said. “We wanted to try and get ahead of some of the problems that can happen, so we start in sixth grade and by the time they’re in high school, they’re prepared for what can happen.”

But middle school is also the best time to introduce these concepts of digital ethics — from how to be considerate and empathetic when making an online comment to citing accurate information in school term papers — because of the cognitive capabilities of kids age 12-13.

Before that age, argues education director Patti Connolly, ethical dilemmas the program teaches don’t stick and by high school age, most kids will have been on social media for five years or more without any formal instruction on the ramifications of their online actions.

“We want to work with them on some of the dilemmas they’ll face with social media sharing, texting, plagiarism and other problems before they’re too hooked in, but not before they can grasp it,” Connolly said. “In some instances the ‘window of opportunity’ might close forever.”

Connolly says children have time-sensitive “windows of opportunity” when the ability to learn certain concepts is at its peak — age ranges when the brain is plastic enough to process larger amounts of certain kinds of information than at any other time. For example, kids ages 2-4 develop basic reasoning skills through play and face-to-face contact. Children that age who don’t get the contact they need might struggle later in life with interpersonal communication or relational skills.

The course is written so that kids can grasp these problems in simple terms without going online. In one lesson for seventh graders, the students pose as businesses considering resumes of fictional job applicants. The students then have to check out the applicants’ fictional social media profiles and websites, where they find questionable photos and catch the applicants in lies.

The goal, Graber says, is to teach the kids that figuring out what’s true and what’s not online is hard and that photos and unfavorable comments are difficult to get rid of. Because the class debates the issues together rather than just reading about it in a book, the lessons tend to make a bigger impression.

“The class lets students experience it together and create social norms for online behavior on their own,” Graber said.

Journey School administrator and executive director Shaheer Faltas says that while some schools might save digital literacy for annual assemblies rather than an entire class, the benefits of the extended class have been serious for Journey. When Faltas first agreed to give Graber’s class a spot in the lesson plan, his office was dealing with students' social media squabbles regularly.

“In six years we haven’t had a single episode of cyberbullying or any incident related to digital trauma. It’s a gamble not to teach this,” Faltas said. “If we care about our children and our society, we have to teach kids how to be good citizens. How can we do that without talking about digital citizenship?”

Empowering parents

Graber created Cyber Civics to help parents as much as children. Just ask mother of two Michelle Spieker, who says Graber’s yearly parent presentations changed her approach to parenting.

“My husband and I were really naïve and in the dark about it, and a little frightened, I think,” Spieker said. “Diana’s program really opened our eyes about how something as innocent as positing a picture can become a dangerous or devastating situation for self-esteem if the kids depend too much on likes or if they have to deal with negative comments.”

Spieker says it’s difficult for people who didn’t grow up in the digital age to parent in it.

“You feel like you know something, but until you understand the scope, you don’t even know what you don’t know,” Spieker said. “It’s like trying to know what an elephant looks like by just touching its ear.”

But Spieker says Cyber Civics helped put she and her sixth-grade daughter on the same page and understand the cultural gap between their generation. One of Spieker’s daughter’s first assignments was to interview her family about what technology was like when they were growing up.

“It interested her that we had a phone with a cord and a busy signal. She was blown away that you might not always be able to notify someone if you’re late,” Spieker said. “That was the first moment it struck both of us how far this has all come.”

Spieker said Cyber Civics helped both she and her daughter make better decisions. When her daughter wanted a cell phone at 11, Spieker said she and her husband didn’t feel pressure to hand it over blindly.

And when Spieker didn’t think to tell a babysitter not to post pictures of her kids online, her daughter piped up to tell the sitter Spieker wouldn’t approve. Now, Spieker says she’s much more confident.

“This has all changed the parenting dynamic and it has amazing consequences for our kids,” Spieker said. “If we’re not addressing it, we’re being neglectful as parents an we don’t even know it.”

As more schools adopt Cyber Civics, Graber’s dream for her program is to be put out of business when her practices become common sense for everyone. Until then, she’s out to raise awareness. This summer, Graber will present at a national conference of Waldorf Academy schools before gearing up for a new year.

“We can’t slap digital literacy on as an assembly or an after-school program,” Graber said. “The tools are going to change, apps are going to change, but human behavior doesn’t change. We want kids to be good people no matter where they are, even in the online world.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson