How to be safe online

Have you heard about the Digital Driver License? It’s not exactly the Digital format of the Driver’s License but a license that validates that we understand all the rules and guidelines of being good Digital Citizens.

Although the last two years have catapulted us into online meetings and online classes, in prior years we were already seeing a consistent rise in the use of digital devices. According to a Common Sense Media survey, 41% of families had a mobile device in 2011 and by 2017 that number was 95%. In 2011, less than 10% of families had a tablet whereas by 2017 that went up to 80%. For today’s families, screens are a fact of life and they aren’t going away. In the absence of definitive research-based advice, achieving balance is key. 

Writing in the New York Times, pediatrician and journalist Dr. Perri Klass explains that, “Since most of us depend on technology to do our jobs and stay connected, we — and our children — need to find healthy ways to use it and not let it take over our lives.” While I acknowledge that screens or online interaction have adverse effects on us, the inevitability of screens in our lives makes me think of the car analogy. The average number of car accidents in the United States alone is 6 million every year. Despite these facts we still drive them because it’s an essential part of our lives and extremely helpful. We let kids ride with us in cars but we do make sure that they follow all the safety protocols. 

Do we tell our kids to never learn how to drive a car because of the dangers? Instead we sit next to them and teach them how to do it well. We help them learn the controls on the car and navigate the road.  Many a times we practice these standards with them even proactively, when they are not old enough to be in the front seat of the car. Our children, when they are older, will need to pass the driving test before they drive a car. We make every effort to be with them and teach them how to drive a car long before we let them drive on their own.

Shouldn’t we do the same to help them navigate the digital world? 

Shouldn’t the same reasoning apply to being a digital user of online platforms?

Shouldn’t there be tests which every student should pass to validate them as responsible digital citizens?

While technology continues to evolve like a roller coaster it is imperative to define best practices for the digital world. A couple of years days back the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) had developed the Digital Driver’s License project – a set of guidelines and questions on internet safety for students and schools. I think a curriculum like that must be available in every school. It is as important as learning how to read, write and count.

The following are a few tenets that every student should learn before they venture out into the digital world. These are the qualities that a good digital citizen should possess to behave responsibly in the online world.

Make good choices, Ask when in doubt

Like using good judgement on the road, we need to teach kids to make good choices when online, and encourage them to ask when in doubt. I cannot stress enough that digital tools are not just a medium of entertainment, they are also tools to advance learning and keeping up with the changing times. In the United States alone, 62% of working adults use the internet for their job. This is the world that the current students need to be prepared for. We should coach our kids on spending meaningful time on the digital devices besides games and fun. Kids are inherently curious. If we channel it correctly, the online space can be a great place to introduce children to shows that will supplement learning. 

Safety First

The one thing that will not keep  kids safe in the online world is keeping them away from it. This might seem counter-intuitive but kids are curious and keeping them away will only steer  them to be online without guardrails. Instead we should be exploring online games or shows with them in a safe and limited manner. This will allow us to give them the right advice and guide them in being intentional with using the digital world. We make sure that they are aware of the risks that online exposure can bring. Stick to age-appropriate information and teach them about safety. Tell them to be mindful of what they are posting online, never share passwords and never reveal personal information to strangers online. Six million teens report that they have received inappropriate images from someone they know. It is critical to be conscientious while communicating through a variety of digital channels. Talk to children about making responsible online purchasing decisions and to protect payment information. A typical teen reports having lost an average $400 to cybercrime.

Display respect and empathy 

As you would practice to be respectful to other drivers on the road, model and practice digital citizenship in the classroom. Kids today use platforms like Seesaw or Google classroom to post work online. They can use the same platforms to provide constructive feedback to each other. While commenting online, have kids use same words as they would say out loud face-to-face to their peers. Encourage positive communication. 88% of social-media-using-teens have witnessed someone being mean or cruel. It is important to realize that harsh words through a computer screen can hurt as much as when they are said directly to us. These practices are not limited to the classroom environment. Practice and display the same behavior when discussing social media at home.

So what does a typical digital citizenship test look like?

No learning is complete without a little bit of assessment. When I think about the guidelines that will help children and young adults to be good citizens I think the curriculum must also contain assessments like the following. Real-life scenarios that will help young learners to reflect and embrace empathy in the digital world. Courtesy of the International Society for Technology in Education, here is an example.

Question: Jamie is working on a “You Look Like a Celebrity” page for the soon-to-be-published school yearbook. His job is to find pictures of celebrities resembling students. He has found several images online that will be perfect and gets to work editing the yearbook page. Is this OK?

Answer: No, it is not legal if Jamie does a Google search, finds some great images, saves them on his desktop and starts putting them in the yearbook layout. Not only did Jamie not cite where he got the images, but more than likely, the photographer did not release them for public or commercial use. Jamie could request permission from the artist, but most of the time photographers are hard to find. Jamie should either cite the sources of the images if they are released to be reproduced or do some Creative Commons searches for different images.

So, then are you ready to help your children be excellent digital citizens?