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Examining the Role of Schools in Helping Students Become Good Digital Citizens

Harvard University recently made headlines when it withdrew admission for ten would-be freshmen because of racist comments in a private Facebook group. The news raises the question of how much monitoring schools should be doing of their student’s social media activity, and what kind of responsibility do they have to teach internet etiquette?

With everything from bullying to sexual harassment, spilling over from social media sites to campuses, schools around the country are beginning to take a more watchful approach to what students post online.

Amy Hartjen, the principal of Dysart High School in Surprise, Arizona, knows that her students have their phones on them at all times and spend much of their time on various social media sites. It’s when social media affects the school’s environment and safety becomes a concern, that staff decide to take action.

“When something’s posted on social media and it’s being talked about on campus and it disrupts learning, that’s when we have to step in and decide if there’s something that we need to react to,” Hartjen told PBS.

The Dysart School District Communications Chief, Zachery Fountain, trains staff on how to look for and document potentially troublesome social media posts. Dysart School District isn’t alone in its monitoring of student social media, both private and public school districts around the country are taking steps to protect their students when off campus but online. This could be anything from friending students on social media to see posts that might otherwise be private, to hiring firms to monitor student social media activity.

Washington state lawmakers have recognized the issue and stepped up with a bill that focuses on teaching digital citizenship. Senator Marko Liias, a Democrat, sponsored the bill at the encouragement of a retired teacher media literacy educator from his hometown and says students need to be educated about the “pluses and minuses” of the social media era we’re in.

“We're going to survey school districts, find out who's doing what to educate their kids around these issues of digital citizenship and online safety, and then we're going to glean from that the best practices,” Liias said.

The earlier kids are taught how to be responsible with social media and not use it as a weapon, the better. Google has teamed up with educators and internet safety groups to form the Be Internet Awesome campaign. The goal is simple: teach elementary and middle school students to be kind to each other on social media as well as practice internet safety. The campaign has laid out relatively simple codes for being a responsible internet citizen, such as treating online communication like face-to-face communication and creating guidelines about what is and isn’t appropriate to say or share.

The campaign’s website has lesson plans and games to help teachers guide their students on the basics of internet manners and safety. “Educators and parents are the first line of defense to create responsible digital citizens,” Stacey Finkle of the International Society for Technology in Education told CNN.

Because neither teachers or parents can control every move a child makes on the internet, addressing the issue of digital citizenship is of the utmost importance. The habits they develop can impact not only their K-12 education, but also carry over to college, career, and nearly every facet of adult life.

It’s no secret that internet message boards and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can bring out the worst in people. Any glance at the comments section on a news story will prove that people’s vitriol online knows no bounds.

With technology becoming more ingrained in our lives, teaching students that their digital footprint can have an impact on the lives of others as well as their own, is a responsibility many educators are taking control of.

“By helping kids manage the way they use social media, it gives kids a chance to pause, step back and reflect on their actions,” said Frank Gallagher of the Cable Impacts Foundation. “Not only so they can do things in a safe and secure manner, but also so they can do things in a positive and effective manner.”


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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