“In this TeachThought article, Clara Galan offers sage citizenship advice drawn from her own experiences educating her middle school students about their digital footprint.”
by Clara Galan
It was June.
My eighth grade classroom was sweltering with the early summer heat and 32 anxious students ready to bolt through the doors towards graduation. But we weren’t discussing the graduation ceremony, finals, or even summer vacation.
“Did you see Amy’s Snapchat picture?” a boy in the back of the room muttered. Snickers spread like wildfire in the back of the room, and the group turned to look towards Amy’s empty desk. “I thought the pictures disappeared after you sent them,” another girl in the front row whispered.
This was my reality. I wasn’t standing in front of a class of 13-year-olds to talk about academics. Something much more important was at hand, a lesson that would affect the rest of their professional and personal lives. It was difficult for my middle school students to believe that their digital posts and photos could be seen by the rest of the world. They argued with me about privacy settings, friending, and following, but the conclusion was still the same.
How did their teacher, administrator, and parents end up with their photos in hand? Slowly, my students began to grasp the power of social media and its contribution to their online identities. It was the first time anyone had talked to my students about their digital footprints, but by eighth grade many of them had already imprinted several. All of my students were already using online spaces for both academic and social purposes, and needed to be guided in their behavior.
Social As An Experience
Simply because something is powerful, doesn’t mean that it should be feared. At a young age, students are introduced to a digital megaphone that will highlight their voice and experiences to the entire world with the click of a button. As students are taught to be positive role models in their communities, they should also learn to be great digital citizens and leaders. Unlike behavior in the school hallways or on the playground, online interactions are recorded — forever. The sooner students learn how to shape their digital footprint and the responsible ways to interact online, the better.
In reality, most students have a digital footprint before they’re even born. How many photos are there on Facebook of weddings, pregnancies, sonograms, and infants? From the moment they enter this world, many children are already creating a digital portfolio that will later be evaluated in academic, professional, and even personal situations. The same goes for early digital academic work and social interactions outside of school.
As this new digital generation emerges, most children use a mobile device long before entering the classroom. According to a study by Common Sense Media, 75 percent of children ages 0-8 in the U.S. use a mobile device at home. This percentage continues to grow in age, as Pew Research states that 78 percent of teens have a cell phone, and almost half (47 percent) of those own smartphones. They are also apt to have multiple devices, with 23 percent owning a tablet computer, a comparable percentage to the general adult population.
Learning to Place a Digital Footprint
With the wide distribution of mobile devices readily available, it is vital that students develop the digital citizenship skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century. This should be taught as early as Kindergarten, with age-appropriate activities to slowly cultivate students’ online behavior and identities. Digital citizenship is comprised of two key elements: social and emotional learning that is transferred to the online world, and the ability to use digital tools in a productive and positive way.
Social and emotional learning can be accomplished by allowing students to practice interacting in online spaces, just as students learn to collaborate offline. At times, parents and teachers fear that allowing students to socialize online will result in online bullying or other inappropriate digital behavior. This fear sometimes causes parents and schools to ban or heavily monitor social media spaces and mobile devices, causing students to miss out on an education that they desperately need.
As students learn how to partake in discussions with their peers and treat one another face to face, the same needs to be said for online interactions. In addition to social and emotional digital learning, the technical part of using devices and navigating online spaces is also important. All teachers should show students how to use mobile apps in a world that is moving increasingly towards a mobile market. The vast availability of education apps make them the most popular in the app store, with 500,000 available on iTunes.
Considering that 70% of U.S. students use mobile apps to help them study, it is evident that such apps provide an engaging way for students to learn technical skills and acquire content.
Turning Footprints into Influence
The ability to navigate new technology will help students in high school, college, and throughout their careers. Such skills can only help them get ahead in an increasingly competitive job market, and the lack of technical knowledge will only impair their chances for success.
As I realized in my classroom on that early summer day, teaching digital citizenship was possibly one of the most important lessons I could give my students before they left my class. Discussions, activities, and guided practice would not only bring a more positive and supportive online environment amongst classmates, but such lessons would also prepare students for something much bigger. Learning digital citizenship would make my students’ voices and experiences heard not as inexperienced and immature teens, but as young leaders and influencers. My students could find their passions and make a positive change through their amplified voices.
As educators, we have our work cut out for us. With many employers and colleges looking to online profiles, knowledge of one’s digital footprint is extremely important. Inspire your students to use mobile devices and navigate social spaces with their influence in mind.
No matter what their age, they have the incredible–and for them, authentic–power to make a difference for the better.