Why Digital Citizenship Must Be Taught in Schools

Wake up and smell the silicon: From smartphones and apps to computers and social networks, technology has permanently invaded kids’ lives, much to the benefit of parents and educators. But with the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad now topping children’s wish lists, kids aged 2 to 5 are more equipped to run apps than tie their own shoelaces. In the rush to place high-tech and mobile devices in so many hands, we’re also doing perilously little to prepare adults and kids alike for life in a connected world, potentially endangering future generations.

According to the latest Norton Online Family Report, nearly 62 percent of children worldwide have had a negative experience online — nearly four in ten involving serious situations, i.e. cyberbullying or receiving inappropriate photos from strangers. A whopping 74 percent of kids active on social networks say they’ve found themselves in unpleasant situations alone, while additional surveys reveal that nearly eight in ten have witnessed acts of meanness or cruelty on Facebook, Google+ or other similar services.

It’s a serious problem when three out of every four middle and high school kids own a cellphone, yet a quarter of adolescents say parents know little or nothing about what they’re doing on the Internet. Even more so when you consider that 20 percent of kids won’t tell parents about negative online experiences for fear of getting into trouble, according to Norton’s findings.

Welcome to the digital age — an era increasingly defined by a growing gulf between those who grew up with technology and those to whom modern-day advancements such as apps, cloud computing and smartphones remain esoteric. And, for that matter, one in which experienced role models able to provide positive, real-world solutions for addressing new and emerging problems (e.g. cyberbaiting, sexting and live broadcasting of personal data) are increasingly hard to find. For previous generations, parents and grandparents could serve as a vital source of wisdom and learning for all things family-related. But like many of today’s educators and experts, they too are facing the stark reality of having never been confronted by life in a world of 24/7 online streaming downloads, instant mobile video sharing, and innocent mistakes that live on in infamy forever via the Internet.

Even technology insiders presently struggle to define rules of online etiquette, social media conduct and personal boundaries, given the speed at which advancements now arrive and online trends shift. That’s problematic for parents, who are expected to lead by example. As ever, the answer lies with education. But there’s a widening chasm appearing between the reality of connected life and the lack of online awareness being provided by our school system.

Based on recent surveys, parents, kids and teachers largely agree that the Internet and technology should be better integrated into modern schools, college curriculums and university classrooms. According to the non-profit National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), however, schools are ill-prepared to teach online safety, security and digital citizenship. Case in point: Over 80 percent of school administrators say they do an adequate job of preparing students to meet the challenges a digital world presents. However, a frightening 36 percent of teachers claim they’ve received zero hours of training in the previous year when surveyed.

A moving target, keeping kids safe naturally requires ongoing effort and discussion from all sides — kids, parents, teachers and law enforcement officials alike — all of whom must actively work to provide families with support, and share learning and best practices. But make no mistake: We need basic training and ongoing education in digital citizenship and online safety in schools now — not in the near or distant future. Frankly, parents underestimate just how drastically tomorrow’s family depends on it. Having recently returned from this year’s edition of toy industry gala Toy Fair — suddenly crawling with app-enabled action figures, Barbie dolls with built-in digital cameras and faux cellphones for toddlers — it’s clear that a fundamental sea change is happening. Technology continues to move at a blistering clip, and to permeate nearly every aspect of household life, even from the youngest age. As both parents and responsible role models, this demands that we question whether we’re doing enough to keep up.

Companies such as McAfee, Lookout, Kaspersky, Webroot and Trend Micro all offer software solutions that block or filter questionable content. Others, like Web Watcher and Net Nanny, offer apps and Web browsers that provide sanitized content for children’s usage. But as we know, truly determined kids can circumvent all of these, and companies will tell you themselves that software is no substitute for parenting. Only by proactively teaching positive computing and digital lifestyle habits can such problems truly be addressed. Discussion can, and must, occur surrounding digital citizenship and online safety starting at the earliest years, and continue into later phases of adolescent and even professional life. Moreover, we need to recognize the pressing importance of keeping these conversations going daily in homes, schools and boardrooms the globe over. Standardized educational solutions and training programs that teach high-tech safety rules and responsible online usage could prove the solution. Whether solutions come from the state, private or non-profit sector, though, it’s vital that we better equip kids and adults alike to meet the challenges of the modern world.

As transformative a force for good as technology and social media can be, fixating on sensationalized danger isn’t the way forward, nor is attempting to halt the spread of these highly beneficial innovations. But we must take measures to keep pace with progress’ steady — and suddenly bewilderingly fast — advancement. We owe it to ourselves to better prepare parents and kids to greet the many positives and challenges the connected life brings, even if it means our kids have to scold us someday for committing the (hopefully by-then archaic) faux pas of posting embarrassing baby photos of them to our Facebook profiles.

High-tech parenting expert Scott Steinberg has just launched a new book series, “The Modern Parent’s Guide,” covering all aspects of connected family life, and companion video show “Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids.” The first volume, “The Modern Parent’s Guide to Kids and Video Games,” is downloadable for free at www.ParentsGuideBooks.com now.

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