It’s not just the kids.

We often think that kids are the only individuals in need of training, education, or support when it comes to navigating this digital world. We couldn’t be more wrong.

A few months ago I was out to lunch with a former elementary school secretary. She passed a table of young men (high school age) and noticed them passing around a text photo of a young woman. Except this young woman had no shirt on and didn’t look too happy to be having her picture taken. Instead of walking by and shaking her head in dismay this former elementary school secretary stopped and took a seat. Here is how it played out.

FESS (former elementary school secretary): “Hi boys, looks like quite the text.”
HSS (high school students): looking shocked as she slipped into their booth and looking at one another unsure of what to do
FSS (former elementary school secretary): “I just hate seeing you all pass naked pictures around of someone that is probably a friend or at the very least a fellow student”
HSS (high school students): still shocked and getting nervous, one puffing his chest out a bit looking as if he was trying to decide if he would argue
FSS (former elementary school secretary): “You all look smart, but I wonder if you know the consequences and even more consequences if that young lady is under a certain age”
HSS (high school students): looking at one another with a little concern
FSS (former elementary school secretary): “It doesn’t really matter if you delete that from your phones because it is digital and the fact that it was on your phone will never go away. So it looks like you all are already in a bit of a pickle. Regardless I would delete that and tell whoever sent it to stop, now.”
HSS (high school students): shaking their heads, deleting multiple pictures, and quickly texting

That exchange proved a few things to me. Regardless of our age we can be advocates for right and wrong, and all of us need an understanding of what it means to have empathy, ethics, and a sense of social and civic responsibility in our digital world.

A 2010 report noted that increases in youth cyberharassment was primarily driven by a rise in posting or sending comments or media to others. In 2017 18% of Americans reported experiencing cyberharassment like physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment, or stalking. In 2017, researchers found that when kids are ‘friends’ with their parents in social media environments there is a decrease in the likelihood of alcohol or marijuana use in high school. 78% of kids are reporting that they are embarrassed by their parents’ online activity.

I don’t share these as a means to describe how pervasive the use of technology is to do harm. Rather, I share these a means to raise the flag. What flag? The flag that says: we need to get serious about ensuring that every child AND adult understands the ins and outs of living as a productive digital citizen. As adults we need to be role models and our kids need to understand that the room for digital error is increasingly small.

Harassment isn’t contained to adult workplaces. It’s happening among our children and we are doing shockingly little about it. — Casshin and Weissbound

When I look at the data around cyberharassment there is one thing that is clear: We have to do better in teaching ourselves and our kids about engaging via digital media with others. We need every person to understand what the benefits and consequences are of being a digital citizen. According to ISTE and Metiri Group a digital citizen is: someone who proactively approaches their digital access, participation, and associated rights, accountability, and opportunities with empathy, ethics, and a sense of social and civic responsibility.

I love this definition because when we wrote it we focused on the positive. We focused on being proactive not fearful. We focused on the need to master our citizenship in this new way. We focused on being active and not passive in this newish citizenship. In a time where both adults and children take to their online presence to voice opinion it is important that ALL of us understand and have shared expectations for how those interactions take place.

This isn’t about conversations alone, it is about actually understanding the skills and adopting the dispositions. It is about creating the cognitive dissonance needed to stop the actions of bullying, harassment, and lashing out online.

When we have a conversation we may remember. But when we develop the skills and knowledge and understanding we develop the automaticity (the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit, and is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice)necessary to stop the madness that has become our new digital means of harassment, bullying, and disregard before it event starts.

Solving this issue is not as simple as we think and we shouldn’t just say “they should know better.” Because in fact, none of us know better until all of us do better.

Consider this a call out to all of our parents, educators, and leaders. If you care about your kids, then do something proactive that is sustainable to ensure that every individual in our community understands their role in creating an environment (digital or otherwise) that is free of harassment. Educate your employees, educators, parents, and kids. Not until our communities are saturated with reminders and educated persons with a shared understanding of what it means to engage with empathy, ethics, and a sense of social and civic responsibility should we rest.

We will never be perfect and we will always be behind the eight ball trying to catch up with the latest technologies. But we have to do something to ensure that all of our citizens (regardless of age) are moving towards a time of understanding and best practice.

No one is immune and it is the responsibility of each of us to do better. Ask your schools, your mayor, or any of your local organizations until someone takes ownership. Until someone stands up, the capacity of our kids and our communities to do better in their online interactions is hit or miss. Our kids and our communities are far too important to dismiss this opportunity. Here are a few options and examples to get you thinking; but someone in every community please step up and make sure something happens.

  1. Parent Digital Citizenship Academies by Common Sense Media.
  2. Digital Citizenship Guide for Parents by MediaSmarts.
  3. Cyber Civics Program by Cyberwise.
  4. Microsoft’s Council for Digital Good.
  5. ISTE’s Digital Learning Pathways for developing the Digital Citizen.
  6. Set up recurring parent trainings around technology, to be proactive and positive.

Think differently, think broadly, think about who all of the stakeholders are in creating a digital citizenry that upholds the ideals of empathy, ethics, and a sense of social and civic responsibility. Think about how we can educate, inform, and continue to push forward on creating a culture not of fear but understanding.

Get this done for our kids. Now.