The Digital Gaffe
There is no shortage of resources to tap into to address and teach digital citizenship to students these days. Not a day passes when a headline does not jump off the front pages of the news that stirs and disturbs the notion of safe, smart, and civil engagement online.
From UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s ill-timed, insensitive rant on You Tube, in which she slammed Asian-American students for talking on their cell phones in the UCLA library, in the wake of the devastating news of the Japan earthquake, to the front page New York Times article about the viral cell phone picture of an 8th grade female student, to the Israeli government demanding that Facebook remove an incendiary Facebook group that fanned the flames of extremism, it is frankly not possible to escape the perils and challenges of living in the digital age.
As educators and parents, how are we to address this deluge with kids?
Well, we can’t turn the other way, and hope that the digital gaffe will disappear. It won’t.
But where is the space where kids can wrestle with and talk through the complexity of these issues, without fear of reprisal and punishment?
First, parents need to create a safe space at home for open conversation to happen. When confronted with digital missteps by their kids, parents need to remain calm, catch their breath, and avoid visceral responses.
Second, schools need to talk with kids about digital citizenship.
Schools need to make judicious use of Advisory programs, social and emotional learning, history, civics, and writing classes to provide opportunities for dialogue to occur in smaller settings with a genuine back and forth about the subtle and blatant problems that emerge with ill-advised technology use. Kids also need to feel that adults will listen to and identify with the challenges kids face with media.
As these lessons and discussions take place, schools need to communicate with parents to help continue the conversation in the home. This can happen through follow-up letters and resources sent home to parents, or through parent education evenings, where parents can share and strategize about how to handle the online environment at home.
Schools and parents need to work together to build and maintain an above ground culture with kids. When an incident arises, schools need to approach the student and family to work with them to help resolve the situation, in partnership. As we all know, particularly with technology, information travels with speed. It is critical to help kids figure out ways to reorient situations that start to arise. Schools need to take the time to talk through scenarios and think out loud with kids the steps needed to reach successful outcomes. Kids cannot do this alone and need the help and guidance of teachers and parents.
As a response to Alexandra Wallace’s YouTube rant, Jimmy Wong, an Asian-American, flipped Wallace’s rant on its head with a catchy ditty “Ching Chong” that went viral and “leveled the playing field”, as writer Dave Pell shared on NPR. “Sometimes it’s about being smarter, funnier or more creative,” Pell writes.
Not every kid will have the tools to invert a digital gaffe, in the way Wong did, but every kid needs and deserves the space to voice and devise an antidote to digital gaffes. And the last thing parents and educators want is for kids to go underground, and have to do figure out solutions to the digital gaffe on their own.
In The New York Times, in an article titled, Erasing the Digital Past, Michael Fertik of Reputation.com, highlights the stakes of posting online: “The Internet has become the go-to resources to destroy someone’s life online, which in turn means their offline life gets turned upside, too. We’ve reached a point where the Internet has become so complicated, vast and fast-paced, that people can’t control it by themselves anymore. They now need an army of technologists to back them up online.”
Kids don’t have the good fortune of having an “army of technologists to back them up online”, and they can’t pay services like Reputation.com to guard their online identities. But kids can expect that the adults in their lives are the go to people when they make or experience a digital gaffe.