With the rise of sexting and online bullying that can cause hallway fights and other problems, Anoka-Hennepin schools now require a digital citizenship session for sixth- and eighth-graders.
It’s the new “talk” teachers are having with tweens, early teens and their parents.
All sixth-graders in Anoka-Hennepin schools will get the talk in health class this year, all eighth-graders in language arts class.
The subject: Just how are you using that smartphone or computer to communicate with friends?
Students are asked: How well do you know this “friend”? Are you revealing too much? What are the long-term consequences? Could this get you in trouble with your peers, parents, teachers or police?
Parents are prodded to sit down and have the “talk” even if they think their kids aren’t doing it.
But critical in this digital era.
The district has rolled out a comprehensive digital citizenship, social media, Internet “netiquette” and Web safety program for middle schoolers and their parents.
With the explosion of smartphones and tablets that are allowed in the district’s middle and high schools, headlines about high-profile cases of online predators luring teens, the growing phenomenon of Internet bullying, teenagers’ natural inclination to share TMI (too much information) and ensuing parental confusion, Roosevelt Middle School Principal Greg Blodgett said the need for digital citizenship education is overwhelming.
Other districts are also adding similar programs. Columbia Heights Schools, along with the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, hosted a similar Internet and cell safety session for parents this month.
Just as parents shouldn’t wait for problems to arise to talk to their children about Internet behavior, neither should schools, said Blodgett, who noticed that items posted online outside of school were landing in his office as discipline issues. A fight would erupt in the school hallway over a post or the emotional fallout from social media postings would play out between students at school.
The district started providing digital citizenship and Internet safety sessions for middle schoolers and parents two years ago. They’ve honed their delivery and this year are offering it to all sixth- and eighth-graders. They’re targeting middle schoolers, because that’s often when kids start tapping into social media.
Parents of students ages preschool through high school are invited to attend a session at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12, at the Anoka-Hennepin Schools Education Service Center Staff Development Center, 2727 N. Ferry St. in Anoka.
“We wanted to take a proactive approach that helps kids make good decisions,” said Blodgett, who chairs the district’s middle school digital citizenship task force.
In the 2012-13 school year, the district changed its guidelines, allowing middle schoolers to bring personal smartphones and tablets to school for academic purposes. Before that, middle schoolers could have them in their possession but couldn't use them in school.
Fallout from TMI, suggestive 'selfies' and profane postings
The student and parent sessions deal with the most dangerous and obvious risk: sexual predators trolling online. But they also touch on subtle and more common traps teens fall into online.
Students are encouraged to consider their digital footprint. Think before sending suggestive “selfies,” using profanity in social media and posting party pictures online.
The posts could hurt feelings. They can haunt you when applying for college or jobs. They can get you in trouble at school, kicked off a sports teams and sometimes even in trouble with police.
The school sessions also touch on sharing too much personal information — eating habits, bathroom habits, schedules, moods and feelings — that you may regret having shared with classmates later on. One of the most common mistakes teens make: snapping a celebratory photo of their new driver’s license, with all their personal information visible, and posting it online.
The district is using existing staff and free online resources. Will Powell, a licensed teacher and Roosevelt’s technology coordinator, talked to a class of eighth-graders about sexting during a session last week.
The heartfelt promise from a boyfriend or girlfriend that “I will never show anyone else in the world” is often followed by “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Someone should see this,” Powell tells students.
Powell cautioned students that studies suggest that more than 80 percent of sexting pictures sent by teens end up on adult-content websites.
He also advised students to think about their privacy settings and friend lists on social media: How much can someone find out about you by “Googling”? Do you know this person sending the friend request? Have you talked to them in the last month?
‘I have an account my parents don’t know about’
Powell will also present at the parents session on Tuesday.
He said the biggest mistake parents make is not proactively talking to their kids about digital citizenship, assuming they don’t have access, interest or parental permission to use social media.
“I don’t think you can take the position my child won’t be in the digital world. They are exposed to it by everybody else,” Blodgett said.
Powell said students often tell him, “ ‘I have an account my parents don’t know about.’ I’ve heard it from enough students. They are net savvy enough to create an account without you knowing. Even though you say no, there still needs to be a conversation going on.”
Starting the conversation and setting rules means teens are more likely to come to parents if they witness bullying or suspicious behavior online.
Often, teens don’t tell parents about suspicious or threatening behavior online because they fear their parents’ first reaction will be to take away the phone or table, Powell said.
“There has to be that conversation between a parent and student about what the expectations are. Set consequences for inappropriate posts and check on your students."
Powell recommends parents have all the passwords for their middle school students’ e-mail and social media accounts to regularly check activity.
“I think the parents should definitely have the password for their middle school kids, phone, e-mail, Twitter,” Powell said. “Then there is that gradual release. If your student is doing a great job and you don’t feel like you need to make those checks, back off a bit.”
Alison Feigh, who teaches students and parents across the state about Internet safety, said her main advice to parents overwhelmed at the ever-changing social media landscape is this: You don’t have to know all the inner workings of a car to set limits on teen driving. Likewise, you don’t need to know all the details of every app or social media site to set standards for online behavior.
Feigh, program coordinator at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, said the most important piece of Internet safety is identifying a real-life support system with their kids.
Parents should sit down with their kids and come up with a list of five trusted adults they can talk to about problems, she said. When issues or questions arise about online activity, kids know where they can go to ask questions and seek advice.
“We want to make sure they are surrounded by this safety net,” Feigh said.
She advises teens to save sex questions for real-life conversation with trusted adults. Consider your current emotional state before posting online. “If you're really upset, back away from the computer,” she says.
Most important, she reminds students there are no takebacks on the web. Posting on the web is like a pillow fight on a windy day, she tell kids: Feathers fly.
“When it’s done and the dust has settled, you can’t take it back because you don’t know where it’s gone,” Feigh said.
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804