Internet Safety in Schools

Internetsafety [Today we have a guest post from Sara, who demonstrated the SMART board in my  SMARTboard Jungle post. ]

As a fairly young middle school teacher, I am never old to my students until I start talking technology.  They listen with fascination, and mouths slighly agape, as I explain to them that I can remember when the Internet was once only words, or that I received my first free Email account when I was in university.  My students and I are only seventeen years apart in age, but we are growing up in two completely different technological generations.  When I was in elementary school, a small computer lab with 15 tiny Macintosh computers was set up in the storage room behind the library.  15 students would go to the lab to type their assignments, 15 students would stay in the classroom to work on Math, and the teacher would run back and forth down the hallway to supervise.  Now schools are teaching children with more technology experience then I could ever hope to achieve.  The students I taught this year were born in 1998, meaning that they have never been without computers or the Internet.
However, just because students have technology skills, does this mean that they have technology savvy? There have recently been various articles and comments that decry the poor choices students make with regards to technology, like revealing personal information online, posting inappropriate pictures, and cyberbullying.  Children have the technological experience that surpasses that of adults, yet they lack the critical thinking skills that enable them to avoid dangerous situations online.  How can we both support and protect children as they are exploring a medium that they know more about than ourselves?
For many years, students have associated with their peers through passing notes in class or spending hours on the telephone saying nothing in particular.  Some of this communication had the potential to hurt others, but the consequences stayed within the confines of the home, school, or at the very most the community.  Today phone conversations have been replaced by text messages, and notes passed in class are now MSN conversations or social networking sites, yet the students are still relaying the same threats, slander, and gossip as before.  The difference is they are displaying this information on a public forum, where the whole world could potentially see their actions.  Kids now have the ability to post pictures, download videos, and correspond on Facebook. Many do not realize that the items they post for the enjoyment of their friends could be seen by other people for whom the items were not intended.

FYI, the issue of the creepy janitor at the end has already been addressed

One observation that I have noticed from explaining the Internet to students is that you cannot simply espouse on how evil the Internet is, and how they must never, ever post anything about themselves or they will be kidnapped from their homes in the middle of the night by a cruel cyberstalker.  Kids know this scenario isn’t really realistic, and because they feel their intelligence has been insulted they won’t want to listen to the better pieces of advice that you want to give.  Instead, be truthful.  Explain how the Internet is a great place for learning new information and for communication, but just like in any public situation, we need to be careful.  Instruct how to place privacy settings on the various Email and social networking sites the students use.  Explain that they should not place pictures on the Internet that identify where they live or where they go to school, and discuss why using an avatar without your profile picture would be advantageous.  As for cyberbullying, remind students that this is no longer a whispered piece of insult in the hallway, and that bullying in a very public forum could have public consequences.  Explain the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and show how Canadian law interprets cyberbullying.  Make sure that students understand that any negative comment they place on the Internet, no matter how well-hidden they think it is, has the potential to be discovered.

Overall, try to explain Internet safety to children the way you would discuss computers with a colleague.  Explain simply the points that may be common knowledge to you, and never speak down or condescend.  The most effective analogy that I feel worked with my classes was to compare the Internet to a bulletin board at school: if you do not want information posted on the board for the entire school to see, then you should not post this same information on the Internet.  Children are not dumb.  Some Internet dangers may not have ever occurred to them, but if they are given guidance and knowledge most children can amaze you with the mature decisions that they make.