Digital Rules of the Road

Recently, middle school parents have had the opportunity to attend two forums related to teens’ digital safety and online behavior: a visit from the district attorney and a screening of Screenagers.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of technology and how it lets us connect, collaborate, and create. The last thing I would want is for parents and teenagers to feel afraid of technology.  Where digital safety is concerned, I believe knowledge is power.

As I wrote a few years ago, just because kids are comfortable using technology does not mean they have internalized the skills they need to use technology well. We don’t give our car keys to 12-year-olds and say, “Have fun!”  –  and we should not assume that our kids know all of the online “rules of the road.”

For parents struggling to keep up with the newest “hot app,” online game, or social media platform, take heart: these trends come and go, but good digital habits will outlast them all! These habits provide an extra layer of protection and empower students to use technology as a powerful tool for learning and for interacting with others.

Many of these habits are outlined in our Responsible Use Policy (RUP). When we wrote the RUP, we deliberately focused more on “DO’s” than on “DON’Ts,” and we envisioned that it could be a learning tool for students, parents, and teachers.

Here’s what I believe. Our children need:

  • guidance as they navigate digital social spaces
  • regular conversations with parents and teachers
  • safe places to take their questions and concerns
  • clear expectations regarding digital behavior, and
  • help when they make mistakes or stumble upon something upsetting.

If you want to dive in deeper, here are three short articles that I found insightful.

Teach Kids To Be Their Own Internet Filters, by Katrina Schwartz

Key take away: “Students live in an information-saturated world. Rather than shielding them from the digital world, many agree the most effective way to keep them safe and using the internet responsibly as a learning tool is to teach them how to be their own filters. That’s not only a life skill, but one that’s important when researching. Older kids, especially, have the capacity to learn how to decide which online sources can be trusted and why.”

To Keep Teens Safe Online, They Need To Learn To Manage Risk, by April Fulton

Key take away: Parents and teens should actively talk about their “shared social media values.”

“They [parents] also must model good online behavior themselves,” Chassiakos says, like participating in “media-free meals,” making time for exercise, and putting the device away before bed. . . “As adults, we need to start being more creative rather than trying to put ‘governors’ on teens’ phones to prevent unwanted behaviors,” she says. “If we want to help protect teens from online risks, we have to stop assuming that they are the perpetrators and treat them like partners.”

To My 13-Year-Old, An iPhone Contract From Your Mom, With Love, by Janell Burley Hofmann

Key take away: Hofmann believes that parents need to model healthy tech habits and engage in direct, open conversation with their children. When Hofmann gave her 13-year-old son an iPhone for Christmas, she also gave him a “contract” with 18 line items, including:

  • It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren’t I the greatest?
  • I will always know the password.
  • Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public. Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human being. You are not a rude person; do not allow the iPhone to change that.
  • Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.
  • Play a game with words or puzzles or brain teasers every now and then.
  • Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you. Stare out a window. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. Talk to a stranger. Wonder without googling.
  • You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You and I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together.

Her delightful contract is a lesson for all of us: she has high expectations for her child, she provides boundary lines, and she knows that it won’t be entirely smooth sailing –  but she provides a safe place to land when mistakes inevitably happen.

photo credit: Miradortigre Along the road via photopin (license)

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