While it’s unlikely young people will never experience an issue online, I believe it is a good aim to both minimise potential harm and ensure students feel like they always have someone to talk to. Digital citizenship education is an ongoing process, and the work of one teacher is not enough. Ideally, we need parents, students, educators, community members, and school leaders to unite. Most of all, we need to create a positive culture where students feel empowered to use technology safely and purposefully.
Five top tips to help limit your child’s exposure to harmful content online:
- Engage in your child’s online activities – ask what apps, sites and games they’re using and make sure they’re age-appropriate
- Use parental controls on devices to help limit what your child is exposed to
- Let them know not everything they see online is real or true.
- Help them report and block upsetting content they see on social media sites or apps.
- Let them know they can come to you about anything upsetting they see online, and contact Kids Helpline if they need further support.
These issues seem a million miles away from Pizzagate and blogs that tell you that sea ice is increasing and climate change is really a hoax. But they turn out to be adjacent. What happens if my daughter’s search for critical thinking lands on one of the recently politicized redefinitions of that term, which she ends up presenting to the school board? And you’re here at this blog, trusting me — but there are of course other blogs and articles that are written by people in the employ of ed tech firms, and those by people that have zero experience in the domain on which they write. Giving your attention to those sites may actually make you worse at what you do, or lead to your manipulation by corporate forces of which you are unaware.
Like eating Tide Pods and snorting condoms, the Momo challenge is a viral hoax.
As ever, our challenge is this, and it’s a challenge we must face up to in the middle of this war: technology will take us into places that we are ill equipped to deal with. But our ability to deal with it cannot be framed in the old understanding of knowledge, decision making, and power. It’s a new type of challenge that is faced in a new kind of space. And it will require new types of thinking to ensure that, on balance, the change takes us into a new type of space that we can comfortably inhabit. Primary interpretations of the current swathes of change according to know and well understood frameworks may be dangerous: it may comfort us to think of small groups of elite enemy agents undermining our democracy, but this is but one facet of change
Some other read on digital control is Alexandria Samuel’s discussion of parenting styles, Cory Doctorow’s reports on griefers and Alex Hern’s news about YouTube comments and paedophilia.
All of these challenges and trends follow the same formula: A local news station runs a piece overstating a dangerous teen trend. Concerned parents flock to social media to spread the word. Actual teenagers and anyone else who lives their life Extremely Online mock them for their naïveté. Brands and influencers hop on the trend, parodying it and exploiting it for their own gain. And trolls take advantage of those who believe it’s real, often by creating and posting content that seemingly confirms parents’ worst fears. SNL brilliantly parodied this cycle in 2010. Since then, it has only gotten worse.
The problem is, these stories are only ever a distraction. They offer false reassurance and an easy fix to the wrong problem. If you can protect your child from the Momo challenge, the thinking goes, you can protect them from bad things on the internet. Unfortunately, maintaining kids’ safety online is a much more complicated and delicate task. “This whole ‘Momo is making kids commit suicide’ is a digital version of playing Beatles records backwards to hear Satanic messages,” says Ben Collins, a journalist who covers misinformation. “It does a real disservice to all the harmful stuff targeting children and teens on YouTube.”
What many parents miss is that the platforms themselves often perpetuate harm. Their automated moderation systems fail to flag inappropriate content. Their skewed content-recommendation algorithms promote extremist beliefs. They don’t protect kids against cyberbullying from peers, they milk kids under the age of 13 for money and engagement, and they promote truly gruesome content.
Below is an early attempt at an “Rules for Online Sanity” list. I’d love to hear what you think I missed.
- Reward your “enemies” when they agree with you, exhibit good behavior, or come around on an issue. Otherwise they have no incentive to ever meet you halfway.
- Accept it when people apologize. People should be allowed to work through ideas and opinions online. And that can result in some messy outcomes. Be forgiving.
- Sometimes people have differing opinions because they considered something you didn’t.
- Take a second.
- There's always more to the story. You probably don't know the full context of whatever you're reading or watching.
- If an online space makes more money the more time you spend on it, use sparingly.
- Judge people on their actions, not their words. Don’t get outraged over what people said. Get outraged at what they actually do.
- Try to give people the benefit of the doubt, be charitable in how you read people’s ideas.
- Don’t treat one bad actor as representative of whatever group or demographic they belong to.
- Create the kind of communities and ideas you want people to talk about.
- Sometimes, there are bad actors that don’t play by the rules. They should be shunned, castigated, and banned.
- You don’t always have the moral high ground. You are not always right.
- Block and mute quickly. Worry about the bubbles that creates later.
- There but for the grace of God go you.
Howard C. Stevenson from Penn’s Graduate School of Education indicates three steps to address these harmful discourses as they enter your classroom.
- Start with you – Process your own feelings, and address your own vulnerabilities before entering the classroom. Develop a support system with your colleagues. Practice – Classroom reactions usually happen in a split second. Prepare yourself for these instances by role-playing with colleagues in your building, or online with your PLN.
- After an incident – Resist the urge to condemn the action or content. First try to understand the motivation if is disseminated through your classroom or building. Allow the school’s code of conduct to address instances where students actively spread this information. Strongly explain to students that these harmful discourses and the messages being spread about individuals and groups are not accepted. You will not accept the silencing of voices.
- Keep talking – After these events, the best course of action is to keep talking. Difficult discussions will often ensue, but children and adults alike need to be able to process their feelings and reactions. This is an opportunity to shut down and be silent, or engage and promote change.
You definitely do need to have two accounts, says Meika Woolard, a 13-year-old with 335,000 Instagram followers. She is one of Australia's most prominent teen Insta-influencers, and part of a growing trend of users harnessing the power of multiple accounts.
In the end, it is up to you whether you believe that risks exist on the internet and whether they affect you. Personally, I hope that you will take a moment to understand how the internet works, and the risks involved for you and your children. I also hope that you will help your children to understand internet safety so that they are better prepared when you’re not around. I can’t tell you what to think and what to decide. I hope that you make an informed decision, a decision that helps your children lead safer lives.