Bringing Digital Citizenship to Young Students
Carmela Curatola Knowles is a Technology Integration Specialist and experienced educator in Southeastern Pennsylvania. In this guest blog, Carmela describes her passion for early digital citizenship education and a book series that she created to help young students understand the implications of their online actions.
The school year is coming to a close. Before we realize it, some children will be heading to camp, while others will engage in sports, arts, or other activities over the summer. One thing many children 10 or older have in common is that they have or will soon be getting their own cell phones to communicate with adults and with one another. But do they have the foundational skills they need to understand the responsibilities that accompany the use of cell phones and other devices? We have become a connected society, and our children witness our connectedness on a daily basis. However, we have a long way to go in teaching young people about how to use devices ethically and in a way that cultivates empathy towards fellow users.
In my own experience as a teacher, I find that kids in kindergarten and elementary school bring a lot of digital knowledge to the table. Some want to be cool like their older siblings. Others seem to delight in exploring the Internet and accessing content or platforms that may not be age-appropriate; I have had 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students speak of being on sites that require a minimum age of 13! When questioned, they brag about changing the birth date on the sign-up form. What happens in the unfortunate event that a problem occurs? When difficult situations arise, where will these children be looking for guidance? These are the types of questions we need to address in digital citizenship education.
Almost ten years ago, my colleagues and I received the following charge from the Director of Educational Technology at our public elementary school in Southeastern Pennsylvania: “We want to develop an Internet safety unit for our educational technology program.” This project started with identifying the skills to introduce at the Kindergarten level and then building the necessary scaffolding from 1st through 5th grade. This was about five years before the FCC changed its funding policies to require that students in schools that get Universal Service Fund assistance must receive internet safety instruction, so we were somewhat ahead of the curve and had a lot to figure out on our own.
To implement the unit, we wanted to include authentic online resources. However, after surfing the web and searching extensively, we discovered that there was, and to a large extent still is, a major focus on providing resources for digital citizenship at the middle and high school levels but not at the elementary level, even as more and more children as young as toddlers and even babies are exposed to and use technology on a daily basis. Furthermore, the resources that did exist did a poor job of engaging and teaching students while also making sure not to instill fear.
In order to meet our needs, I created a series of books, The Learning Adventures of Piano and Laylee, that centers on a neighborhood of talking puppies and kittens of all colors and abilities from diverse families. In writing this series, my focus was to embed the notion of tolerance and acceptance through everyday children’s play experiences. I used this premise to write about key digital citizenship topics, including internet safety, cyberbullying, copyright respect, acceptable use policies, and netiquette. Each book was designed with a curricular unit of lesson plans, activities, etc. for teachers and home schoolers. At present, I have another five books “on the burner” concerned with digital “paw prints,” digital storytelling, online researching, videoconferencing etiquette, and a visit by the characters to a fictional Museum of Technology.
I’ve used the published books with my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, and I am continually surprised to witness their viewpoints about going online. In my Master’s research on cyberbullying, I found it incredulous that online users tend to think they are anonymous. Young people are oblivious to the fact that each computer has its own Internet address (IP address) and that police officials can actually identify a computer used to send harmful messages or other material. If we are not careful to educate young people about the rules and ethical dimensions of the online world, our children risk not understanding the complex interactive nature of the Internet, becoming desensitized to other people’s feelings and not taking respect, responsibility, or morality into account when engaging with others digitally.
So how do we know when our children are listening to us and thinking about being safe online? When they give us advice for being safe online, we know they are absorbing the concept that we each have a responsibility for cyber safety. One of my favorite examples involves a six year old boy who counsels his mom to refrain from using all capital letters while texting because he learned that it is interpreted that you are yelling at the recipient. Another more recent experience was a ten year old student who advised me sternly not to allow another student to go onto a certain online gaming program because strangers talk to the gamers, using inappropriate language.
Many adults say and believe that kids know more about computers than they do. But what we as adults need to remember is that our kids might know how to play games and watch videos online, but it is the exceptional child that understands how to navigate a computer: how to save a file properly so they can access it again independently, or how to assess available apps and software for a potential need without adult guidance. And this is fine, because they need to be coached in to understand technology just as they need to be coached to read, write, and perform mathematical operations. Yet what these young people need most is for trusted adults to be guiding compasses who can interpret experiences and interactions they will most likely encounter as Internet users and build a framework of trust and support. The purpose of starting these conversations at a young age is so we can foster continued discussions throughout our children’s growing years. As children become teens, an established foundational trust with parents/guardians is the inner voice that helps young people determine when it’s time to ask for help.