When I was in 5th or 6th grade, my family was headed to my grandparents' house and we were driving on the Interstate through Birmingham, Alabama. All of a sudden on the side of the road was a completely naked man. I was 11, my sister was 8, and we had NEVER EVER seen a naked man. My mom yells, "girls, don't look!" We've given her a hard time over the years about her looking back to tell us that. I remember the moment being completely awkward. Lots of questions started flying. "Why was he naked? Why was he on the side of the interstate? What should we do?" and then my baby sister had some even more awkward questions. They were all answered by my parents. We talked about different possibilities of why he might be like that, we talked about his anatomy, we talked about many things that we would have never had talked about had that event not taken place. I remember that moment vividly because I learned more from that moment from my parents about sexuality and drugs and bad choices people make than any other time previous. It was authentic learning to me in that moment. Did my parents want to teach my little sister and me all that right then? No. Do they wish I hadn't seen it? Yes. Was it out of their control? Definitely.
I hear from many parents and educators that are paralyzed with fear of the possibility of their students seeing something inappropriate on the Internet while using technology for school use. This fear causes them to question whether the positives of technology in the classroom are greater than the possibilities for negative exposure. I get that. When my oldest daughter was in upper elementary school, Facebook hit the world beyond college students head on. Social media became a big player for the first time. I myself had been part of Facebook for years as a college student while I worked on my masters and had seen it in action. I was the uber protective parent to her. No Facebook, no cell phone for texting, no other social media. Instead of teaching her how to use it all appropriately, I immediately locked it away from her until high school. Over the years I would find she had set up accounts in secret, used friends accounts, etc. I was losing. Every parent has to find their own way for each one of their kids and all children are different. For me, I decided to change my parenting tactics.
I remembered the story about the man on the Interstate as social media became more and more part of the norm of teen years and I had this thought: My parents didn't say "We aren't going to drive through Birmingham anymore. We are going to blindfold the girls when they are out in the big world. We are going to become recluses." I decided to change my view. Slowly, I allowed her to have some social media accounts with her knowing I would be monitoring. She was also given a phone in 9th grade. Her sister reaped the benefit of my change of mind...she received a smartphone in 7th grade and social media accounts as well.
There have been times I have had to sit my girls down and talk to them about misuse of technology. Inappropriate posts, too much texting, associating self-worth with number of likes, posting too much personal information, joining websites that made them vulnerable to predators. These are real world issues they will deal with the rest of their lives. We talk about digital footprints and about other peoples' mistakes. I feel I help them become good digital citizens by giving them the freedom to make mistakes but also the accountability of knowing mom is going to check up on you. It's messy parenting, but it is productive.
As a 21st century parent and educator, our home and school networks have safeguards in place to protect my children and all students from inappropriateness- both intentional and accidental access. Will our students see or deal with something we would prefer they didn't have to? Yes. Do we wish we could prevent that from happening? Definitely. Is it a teachable moment? You betcha. In the elementary school we start teaching digital citizenship skills in kindergarten. Every single year we talk about the "lightbulb moment" that cartoon characters have when they remember something. I tell them if you come across something inappropriate you have a choice to make and that I hope the "lightbulb moment" will remind them of our classes on digital citizenship and the positive way to deal with negative digital information.
We can live in fear of the unknown and set up a culture of mistrust or we can be vigilant in our ways to protect our students as best we can. We can teach digital citizenship on a regular recurring schedule. We can teach them in challenging interactive ways that makes them not want to be off task while in our classrooms. Sound easy? Not always, but learning is an amazing endeavor. I believe the benefit of technology includes student empowerment, connectivity, innovation, personalized learning, and accessibility. All of these things are certainly positive aspects of learning for all of us but such an important part of making current students future ready.
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