Sunday, February 9, 2014

Teaching Our Tweens to be Cyber Citizens

As Published in Your Teen: For Parents

As a veteran teacher of The Tween, people will often ask how middle school has changed over the years.  The answer comes down to one word – technology. 

Back in the day if you wanted to spread a bit of gossip, you wrote it out on a piece of spiral notebook paper in big loopy letters with a purple grape smelly maker, signed it G/G (Gotta Go), folded it using an elaborate origami technique, and wrote DO NOT OPEN lest someone else usurped it as you surreptitiously scooted it across the floor in class with the toe of your Nike.  

Today – you text it, at which time the receiver forwards it, at which time the next receiver posts it on Facebook, at which time someone Tweets it, at which time someone Google Plus’s it and voila – Viral Gossip with the guaranteed promise of a YouTube video coming soon. 

Yes, technology, and in particular social media, has radically changed the childhood experience of tweens.  Middle school tweens are growing up faster than ever and it wouldn’t be outlandish to accept that middle school has become the new high school.  The fact is tweens spend more time with their iPhones, iPads, and iTouches than their friends, families, and teachers.  The result = iWorry! 

The negative aspects of having access to technology 24/7 are pretty clear, and as serious as they are, I only wish they were confined to cheating or plagiarism.  Events and feelings that were once private are now public for all to see, and in cyberspace they are written in permanent ink.  The mental health risks of friending, cyberbullying and sexting, have profound psychological repercussions on the fragile tween-work-in-progress persona.  They include but are not limited to anxiety, isolation, and even suicide.

Not to say there are no positive effects of tweens employing technology.  I have seen social media sites help the shyest of tweens come out of their unbreakable social shell.  The comfort of expressing oneself through the safety confines of a keyboard and screen can help develop a timid tween’s social skills and boost their overall sense of self.  For this reason alone, I applaud Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for giving kids a way to connect and self-express.

So as parents and teachers of the tween, what is our call to action?  We can view social media technology as the bane of our tweens’ existence, take away all of their gadgets, and lock them in the bedroom until they are eighteen…but I’m afraid that’s not the answer.  At the same time, we can’t afford to squander this ultimate teachable moment that ensures kids a balanced media diet that’s fun, educational, and safe.  Our charge is simple.  It is absolutely necessary that parents and teachers team up to help tweens understand what it means to be responsible digital citizens. 

In short, it can come down to a few guidelines:

  •  Self-reflect before self-revealing in words or pictures.  A digital footprint lasts a lifetime. 
  •  Never share names, schools, ages, phone numbers, or addresses.
  •  Never send pictures of strangers or view pictures that strangers send to you.
  •  Keep passwords private.
  •  Report all cyberbullying to an adult immediately. 
  •  Limit social networking to 1-2 hours a day, after homework is complete.

Along with teaching algebra and the five-paragraph essay, we do our students a disservice if we don’t discuss how social media can help empower tweens to find their voice, find their purpose, and become their best educated selves.  We owe tweens the safe, healthy adolescence they deserve as opposed to the alternative - as so uncannily perceived by Albert Einstein: “It has become appalling clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”  Technology and humanity.  They need not be mutually exclusive.

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