Sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: A guy walks into a room full of teachers to talk about the Internet, privacy and cyber-bullying… but it’s the furthest thing from a joke I can think of, actually. A few days ago I was invited by my children’s school to address the faculty on these very topics and as it’s something I’m very concerned about, I was happy to participate in the discussion.
What makes me a good speaker on this topic is that I completely understand the lure and fascination of the Internet, or Instagram, of texting 24×7, and of the richness of the Internet and its extraordinary breadth of available information. And I also have seen the dark side of these technologies, from the graphic to the hurtful to the downright dangerous.
Back when I was growing up, us teen boys were thrilled if we could get our hands on an issue of National Geographic where we’d be able to see topless women. The fact that they were typically of some aboriginal tribe and had weird outfits and piercings didn’t much matter, and being able to score a copy of Playboy? That was gold, I say.
Now, however, teen boys (and to a lesser extent, girls) have the Internet and the range of pornography and expectations it sets of what a girl should look like and be willing to participate in is way, way more troubling. People without clothes on isn’t that big a deal — I’m not a prude — but benign pictures of demure unclothed people is difficult to find because there’s so much twisted, fetishistic and just plain messed up imagery online. Tried explaining 50 Shades of Gray to your teen yet? Yeah, good luck.
Another topic was when it was acceptable for students to use their smart phones, particularly given that plenty of them can surreptitiously text even without looking at the screen. The high school policy is before school, during lunch break, and after school, but some teachers allow the students to use their phones to look things up during classes too. Is that too lenient? Teachers discussed that some 9th graders complain that unlike middle school lunch, high school lunches are characterized by everyone being on their phones rather than talking to each other face to face. You see it all the time — even with adults — and it is sad, this gradual depreciation of human connection.
One challenge I presented to the faculty was to ask themselves how to teach the children to be creators rather than consumers. I ask you the same thing: what are you creating online that other people will engage with? Or are you just one of the majority, the consumers who willingly read, view, share what other people create instead?
In the world of teens, creation can be sparked by having a short film competition tied to film-making classes and a game programming track so that the boys obsessed with online and computer games start thinking about how to create the worlds rather than just wander through someone else’s universe. All of these honor the children’s engagement and fascination with tech, while also encouraging them to do something creative, a potent mix that can not only yield great works, but also offer them opportunities to explore completely different career paths than most high schoolers.
And then there’s cyber-bullying. This is just ugly stuff and much of it comes from the perceived anonymity of the online world. There are too many sites that encourage anonymous interaction, typically critical and snarky, and there’s nothing good that comes from that. We can’t ban those sites, of course, but creating a culture of empathy and kindness that extends to the online world, and having students recognize that anything that happens online is part of the greater school culture and as such relates to school is a big step forward.
More importantly, I challenged the teachers to help students create their own agreed upon social norms around bullying, the use of tech and related. That’s just good parenting: get your child engaged in the solution and it’ll be far more effective.
My hour talk ran late and we had to cut off the conversation after many insightful observations and more than one teacher going pale as they fully realized the implications of the seamier side of the Internet and their own classroom of students. Just having the conversation isn’t enough, but it’s a solid start.
How about you? Have you had a conversation with your children’s teachers about technology, its positive and negative facets, and how to make it work within the world of teens and academics?