The Importance of Teaching Digital Citizenship

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory / Stock Photos

The story out of Vancouver this week about visuals of the gang rape of a teen-aged girl being passed around Facebook and cell phones was so horrifyingly sad. The speed of transfer of information can seriously amplify situations when teens are not taught digital rights and responsibilities. We have to remember that it’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the use of the technology. The user’s values dictate the way a medium is used. This is why we need adults to be present in teen social space as guides. We can do this partly through the implementation of a mandatory digital citizenship and literacy course in all our schools. Teens need adults who are available to them and can be trusted to act on their behalf.

I do not advocate for complete invasion of teen social space, but we need to have a presence. This is a very delicate balance since teens need some of their own private space to practice socializing within youth circles and for finding their identities. If they feel adults are encroaching too far into this territory, they will look for alternate spaces to keep adults out. That’s what made texting among youth popular in the first place.

The lack of empathy and humanity these youth showed is heart-breaking. The keen interest and voyeurism displayed over such a violent act -alarming. We have to ask ourselves what society will look like in the future if we fail to find the delicate balance of adult presence in teens’ online and linked worlds.

Questions from Teens on Texting

Great discussion is being generated in class with all the media buzz around cell phones in the classroom. I took the opportunity to discuss texting with one of my grade 11 classes, asking students to think about the fears around teens and texting and to frame questions around those fears. Here’s what we discussed:

“Is texting really making us become more anti-social?”

Texting is actually quite social. In fact it’s hyper-social. Teens are connecting with each other around the clock and staying more connected to each other than ever. Adults worry when teens go off to their rooms and text because face-to-face interaction with them drops off. Adults equate your physical absence with anti-social behaviour because they have learned to be social by being physically present. They are worried about being kept outside of your social space. Spend some face-to-face time with your parents every day.

“Won’t we have a harder time communicating face-to-face?”

Just because you are communicating less face-to-face doesn’t mean you’ll forget how to do it. It’s just another form of communication that you can choose from. That means you’ll need to assess the most effective way to get your message across when communicating. For example, teens enjoy using sarcasm with each other. That’s difficult to read in a text. You’re probably already reserving that for face-to-face interaction.

Some teens I interviewed during my documentary said they use texting to help them think about what they want to communicate when responding in a difficult situation, instead of acting impulsively. This can be a benefit in preventing a situation from escalating, however, teens do lose the opportunity to read body language. Sometimes what we say or write isn’t exactly how we feel. Teens need to think ahead about the possible outcomes of using each kind of communication before they engage in a difficult conversation. It’s not much different than before cell phones when teens used notes to express themselves instead of dealing face-to-face. Teens have already been negotiating between written forms of communication and face-to-face.

Another question that came up was “is texting ruining our ability to spell correctly and use proper grammar?” The response will appear in an upcoming post.

Cellphone Use in Classroom topic on a roll

I rushed to the CTV studios right after school yesterday and did the taping for Province Wide. I was 15 minutes late after getting out of the building and then finding on my drive that Wellington Street was closed. I was a little frazzled but managed to shake it.

Daiene asked me what I thought about banning cell phone use in schools and I explained I felt it was sad that some boards that ban the devices are missing out on opportunities to teach students about appropriate use. We chatted about parents who don’t know how to set boundaries as role models for students and how students need to work through their compulsion so they don’t end up like the generation before them. What a great opportunity for education to guide them through this. By the way, Daiene’s cell phone went off during the taping and we had to re-start a question. Her daughter needed a ride home and I had probably kept her later since I came in a little late. It really wasn’t her fault, but it was still pretty funny.

After supper, my husband showed me a news post on the Internet that Premiere Dalton McGuinty had been asked by Toronto reporters what he thought about cell phones in the classroom. The Toronto Board had just announced it had decided to review its cell phone policy. I immediately thought, “Yeah Neil!” Neil Andersen, who appears in my documentary is a retired media consultant for the Toronto Board of Ed. I was so glad that people were starting to talk about the issue. It’s been a long time coming.

This morning I was surprised to see a negative backlash to what McGuinty had said. All he had said was that schools need to help students find appropriate use for ell phones in the classroom and that we need to consider a place for them. That’s exactly what I had been saying Tuesday morning. I guess the fear-mongers ran with that one and attacked him for not considering the distraction of cell phones in the class. It’s strange how people can twist things out of proportion because bringing them in to class is what we needed to do in order to deal with the compulsion to be on call. I wish people could see my documentary so they could understand the issued a lot better.

Before lunch, I got another call from the office that the CBC had been trying to get a hold of me again. CBC’s radio syndicate requested 11 interviews for between 3 and 6 PM. I’m so glad I got up early this morning to write down some of the counter talk I could expect from people. It came in handy on the circuit. Some interviews went easily with talk show hosts that were open to the issues, but a couple went much tougher with the announced out in Halifax calling himself a curmudgeon and David Gray calling me crazy. I think David was just upset because I caught him on one of his own points. He said that teens shouldn’t have cell phones in the classroom to use as tools because it’s unfair to the ones who don’t have them. I said it was an easy fix and that I had never had a problem with it. Students work in groups and the ones that have them are quite happy to share. He asked me if I really thought it was okay to ask the kids who have cell phones be asked to share with the ones who don’t. I explained again that the haves are quite willing to share with the have-nots if you ask them, it’s not a requirement. The haves don’t mind sharing their phones while working in groups and don’t see it as a big deal. It’s all in how you use them in class and that’s something the teacher can set up with the students; is how and when to use them. David asked “isn’t that drawing a line between the haves and the have-nots? Shouldn’t we level the playing field?” I said, “Are you saying that students should miss out on deeper opportunities for learning just to level the playing field when teachers can create equal learning opportunities through putting students into groups? He quickly changed the question.

There’s several more points I made through 3 hours of talks. The battle with David Gray really stuck out because he challenged me. I have taped some of the interviews and will go over them to accumulate some of the issues that were raised and post them later. I also want to write about the questions my students had for me today. We had a great discussion on the fears that people have around texting. I could tell they had been sitting around the supper table talking with their parents about it. Great questions included: “is texting making us become more anti-social?” and “is texting ruining our ability to spell correctly and use proper grammar?” I will save these discussions for the next post as this one is getting quite long.

Booked for Interview with CBC’s Metro Morning

Finally, the re-edits of my documentary on teens and texting are done. I have just burned the project to Blu-ray and will hand it in to Ryerson tomorrow.

This project has really got me thinking about how we can address the issues of cell phone use in schools. We need to start talking about it and come up with some solutions. I’m going to be interviewed on CBC’s Metro Morning Tuesday about my doc and plan to talk about the compulsion that students feel to text using their phones and all the social pressures that surround that. I haven’t received the questions for the interview yet, but during my pre-interview I talked a lot about self-regulation to fight compulsion so I’m hoping that will be the focus.