" UndoDog: Safety, Citizenship, and Facebook

Friday, July 24, 2009

Safety, Citizenship, and Facebook

A friend on Facebook has friended some former students, so I was privy to a severely disappointing batch of comments on a video put up by one of those former students. The video was fine, in fact it was the fifth grade graduation video of the class that is now going into tenth grade.

The comments, however, fell into one of several categories:
1) sweet and nostalgic
2) gratuitously profane and absurdly vulgar
3) rude, arrogant, and hateful
4) some combination of the above with appalling spelling and grammar errors.

Now, I don't think of myself as naive, and I am no stranger to the pottymouth, but I was really shocked by some of the things these kids were saying to each other. It made me think about my "internet safety and citizenship" curriculum.

I used to formally teach internet safety and citizenship in fourth and fifth grade, in addition to including informal lessons in the earlier grades. The safety part was actually pretty fun and engaging--I made a mask that had Miley Cyrus on one side and a scary picture of Harvey Keitel on the other and did a schtick to demonstrate that you may not know whom you're actually chatting with online; I showed PSAs; I had kids review a selection of internet safety sites for information and tips; and I had them make comics and posters to teach other kids about internet safety. But since the reports came out from the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the Internet Safety Technical Task Force indicating that the threat was much less than we thought, I reduced the emphasis on safety.

I still teach kids to keep certain information (including passwords) private and to be careful talking to strangers online or off, and I make sure they understand that anyone can put anything on the internet, and that it's their responsibility to stay on task and to close the window and let me know if they see anything that seems inappropriate, but I dropped the rest of that part of the curriculum. (This also ties into the part of the curriculum where they learn that you can't believe everything you read on the internet. (or elsewhere!))

The other part of the curriculum, the citizenship part, has basically been "be the same nice person you are in real life." (With some closing thoughts on leaving the internet a better place than you found it) And I leave it at that as if to say "of course you guys would never say anything mean or rude online, or log in to someone else's account, or vandalize a website. We don't even need to discuss it, right?" And this has seemed to be working, as we've had very few problems even though fourth and fifth graders have email and Blogger accounts. (Though, perhaps significantly, the kids now going into tenth grade did not.)

But then this Facebook experience. Should I have spent more time teaching them good internet citizenship? Or would that have been long forgotten by now, and their middle and high-schools should be teaching it? Or their parents? Or are these kids simply not nice in real life either? Or is it a passing phase, just part of the tempest that is adolescence? I'm inclined to believe all of the above. At least some of them have been smart enough not to use their full or real names, so they won't get caught when they're Googled by college admissions departments.

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