Share your frustrations online as a teenager in paranoid schools patrolled by network Nazis thumping their copy of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) like black-bound religious texts, and you could end up in jail, or expelled. Seventeen-year-old Taylor Cummings of Tennessee learned his lesson and continues to suffer the consequence.
Learning to share your frustrations constructively, online or in person, defines our success in a world rife with conflict. Ultimately, we control whether our children will behave appropriately or not in schools. Private and public schools can choose to ignore how a human being acts in online spaces, or model digital citizenship.
While some would argue that cyberbullying and bad things happen as a result of an increasingly connected world, another argument presents itself: incidences are increasing because, as parents and educators, we have blinded ourselves in fear of the repercussions, the potential lawsuits, and political incorrectness of being human...of being human without the support of those who love us, support, and teach us. Schools must drop their current approach of condemnation and model appropriate behavior.
THRILL OF THE HUNT
Though my 11-year-old son is too young for Facebook, his youth serves as no barrier to learning the lessons that prepare him to secure privacy -- made more precious for its scarcity -- while living "in the open," online. For him, YouTube provides lessons that many boys have been engaged in for hundreds of years -- the thrill of the hunt, albeit a virtual one.
On the drive into school every morning, my hawk-eyed son shares his previous evening's Halo conquests with me. His stories of derring-do and adventure remind me of my youth, when a curved piece of wood dabbed with red paint serving as my blooded blade, fresh from slicing a Saracen marauder in Twain.
You get the idea...violence, imagined or visualized, grounds itself in the stories we tell. The stories, though false, feed our confidence as children. Yet, in our morning conversations, we both acknowledge that my talent with a Beretta pistol or his with a blue-black machine-gun pistol are not real.
THE FORGE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
Online communities have formed around these virtualized voyages into gore and heroism, conversations and friendships being forged online. I've felt the bonds of comrades in arms as I run to Capture the Flag in a game of Urban Terror, a free, open source software game you can play regardless of your computer's operating system. There's something powerful about the bonds forged. Yet, misbehaving in online games can have consequences, as both my children have learned.
In one game, my son's avatar reached an untimely death, and exploded in "mines" planted by other team members (who play virtually from around the world). For that, he was banned. When my son complained to me and I asked, "What did you do that caused that reaction?" he would not admit his behavior. Having played the game with him, I prompted him. "Did you mess up anyone else's work?" He then admitted his error and it has served as a powerful lesson for him. It is a lesson that our whole family discusses and reflects upon...what you do online has consequences offline. Playing a video game on your computer with no Internet connection is NOT the same as playing an online collaborative video game like Halo LIVE, Enemy Territory, Urban Terror, or World of Warcraft.
In similar conversations with my high school daughter -- who decided on her own to abandon Facebook because it impacted her study time -- online means being part of a larger community. Managing your "brand," ensuring that you are consistent in those relationships, layering trust on predictability.
LIFE ONLINE IS REAL LIFE
For our children, these online activities and communities replace the traditional approaches their parents took to interact with each other.
No longer can my son escape into imagination, clutching a rubber-band pistol that fires small missiles at iguanas (as I did growing up in the Republic of Panama), ride Silver into the sunset after a heroic rescue or slay pirates as a swashbuckling treasure-seeker. Simply, America's streets are not safe...our children are rebuilding their playgrounds of imagination online. Or, our children appropriate adult playgrounds, including MySpace, Facebook and others, for their own use.
And, just as online collaborative games and social media tools enable us to plan together and execute a plan, our face to face relationships demand trust and cooperation to get the job done. The skills we build online extend to who we are as human beings into the virtual world.
School technology officials struggle with allowing Facebook access to students in K-12 schools. For them, the conversations you don't have with your children are the ideal. For them, it is better to ignore the inappropriate and to model that approach to children in schools, ensuring they don't "speak the unspeakable." Does this approach really work?
One Texas technology director recently shared his perspective on using technology tools to manage human behavior:
Like many, if not all of you, I found myself spending way too much time on filtering issues. Block this, unblock that, getting teachers by-pass rights, etc. I finally just got fed up with all the time it was requiring. When I started looking at trends I realized we were using the filter as a student management tool and not for its intended purpose. Let me be very clear, we are still filtering and complying with CIPA and other mandates.
What we are NOT doing any longer, is blocking all the multitudes of other sites that might have inappropriate material. There are many sites, YouTube comes to mind, that have a lot of great educational material but also have content that is inappropriate at school.
If I block YouTube, then many of the school safe sites, like the browser Kidzui, Gaggle.net, and many others that use videos from YouTube, will not work. So, I did something drastic. I deleted the entire custom "blocked" sites in the filter. These are the sites that we add over time to the blocked library. There were literally thousands. The custom block library had become unmanageable. It was a total senseless mess....
The bottom line is that we are no longer using the filter as a student management device. We still block clearly inappropriate sites that have absolutely no educational value. The rest is up to proper monitoring and when that fails, treating the issue as a discipline issue, which it is. We have put the responsibility back on the teacher in the lab to monitor students effectively.
As a parent and educator, I offer some straightforward advice:
- Model appropriate usage of technology to your students. If that means pulling up YouTube and Facebook, showing how to navigate inappropriate content -- "Oops, that's NOT appropriate for school, so we're going to avoid clicking on that link" -- and valuing content relevant to academic usage.
- Engage your students, and children, in conversation about what they are doing online, how they are accomplishing it, and what the benefits are. As you understand their perspective, ask them to consider yours.
- Give your school officials permission to model technology use "in loco parentis."
In the long run, we will all be glad that we did...after all, doesn't it take a village to raise a child?