How I Talk to My High-School Students About the Internet

As a teacher, I believe it's my job to warn kids about the dangers of being online—and to show them the benefits.
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Last year, I discussed former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal with seniors in my United States Government course.

We not only considered the ramifications of Weiner’s actions– and how his inappropriate use of Twitter had truncated his political career–but I also asked my students to examine their own use of social media.

They agreed to pause and think before posting anything online, and to consider the permanence of the Internet. After a brainstorming session, the class also created several questions to guide them in making wise online decisions: 

  1. Do I treat others online with the same respect I would accord them in person?
  2. Would my parents be disappointed in me if they examined my online behavior?
  3. Does my online behavior accurately reflect who I am away from the computer?
  4. Could my online behavior hinder my future college and employment prospects?
  5. How could my online behavior affect current and future personal relationships?

I then had my students use their smartphones to review recent postings on Instagram. I heard shrieks as some reexamined not only what others had posted, but also what images they had shared. For the most part, these students worried about scantily clad appearances. Others showed confidence in their use of Instagram to share images of smiling friends and family. My goal isn’t to scare students away from using social media, which can be an extremely useful tool. I just want them to use it wisely. As a teacher, I believe it’s my job to teach my students about digital literacy and citizenship, equipping them with the tools to navigate an increasingly open digital world. This means making students aware of potential pitfalls and helping them to make good choices with current and emerging communication platforms.

What more can schools do to accomplish this goal? For starters, I propose rethinking content-filtering software that blocks access to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn on school computers. For designated periods, teachers and students should have access to these sites, which real-world professionals depend on for communicating and conducting business.  Once students graduate, they will increasingly rely on social networking to market themselves and their abilities, and it’s unfortunate that not more teachers offer formal training on how to do this effectively.

I also feel strongly that more teachers should become familiar with social networking tools, especially if they wish to earn respect and credibility with this tech-savvy, digital-native generation. Students learn best with effective modeling, and what better way than leading by example? In my journalism class, for instance, I show students how I use Twitter to make connections with like-minded educators. I also show them what messages I write, how I write them, and the responses I elicit. I show them how Facebook and LinkedIn can be used to promote ideas, while attracting more followers.

Schools should also encourage teachers to incorporate digital citizenship into the curriculum. Teachers can be creative about how and when they implement lessons, which should delve beyond how one uses social networking. For example, before I assign my junior American History students their first essay, I review fair use, public domain, and copyright laws. In an age when information is easily accessible and often free, it’s not surprising that some teenagers don’t always understand what constitutes plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty.

Presented by

David Cutler teaches history and journalism at Brimmer and May in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He writes regularly about education at SpinEdu.

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