Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Digital Thugs

In the weekend I watched an ABC report on Four Corners about cyber-bullying.  As an educator with a strong interest in educational technology, this is something I take very seriously. There is so much scope for wonderful learning experiences and connections made across the planet - yet there is also so much scope for harm as well. The dark side of ed tech.

It was heart-breaking listening to the parents of children who had experienced cyberbullying, and in one case had committed suicide because of it.  The one thing they all said was that while they were at home in the evening, watching tv or whatever, they thought their child was safe because they were in their bedroom. These days it seems even a child's own room is not safe, as the bullies are right there on the screen that the victims themselves just can't seem to pull themselves away from.

On a related note, Andrew Churches has just blogged at Edorigami about the phenomenon of 'sexting', and what the implications of this are for bullying and for young people's digital footprints:
But it does not end there, Bullying resulting from sexting is claiming lives as young people are stressed and harassed to the point where they feel that suicide is there only way out.

This six minute video that I found at Ewan McIntosh's is a great portrayal of what some kids suffer because of cyberbullying. Definitely worth watching, and even showing to your class as a discussion starter.

Professor Donna Cross was interviewed on the ABC show, and claimed that one of the biggest reasons that young people do not tell their parents about cyberbullying, is the fear that they will lose the right to use their computer if they do. 

So in a way, the bullying is the price they are prepared to pay to stay connected.  This is how important it is to them. (Imagine if someone threatened to take away your computer! Aaarrrggghhh!!!)  I have experienced this parental reaction with a student in my own class, complete computer privileges withdrawn -  not for bullying as such, but for fear of the prospect of personal information being put online.

We really must as teachers try to see things from a parent's perspective. There are real dangers out there, and we teach under the principle of in loco parentis. This is a serious responsibility, which demands that essential parental balancing act of urging learners forward into new challenges and experiences, yet not dropping them out of the nest before you know their wings work well enough to survive the experience.

This is where I believe digital literacy meets digital citizenship. I would suggest that one cannot be digitally literate without an understanding of the responsibilities of digital citizenship. I have just been reading some research by Eshet-Alkalai (2004, Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital Era. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 13(1), 93-106). It includes 'socio-emotional literacy' as an essential aspect of digital literacy. This type of literacy is all about the ability to manage one's identity and relationships safely in a digital context.

This makes me consider exactly what I want the group of learners I have responsibility for to leave my class with at the end of the year. Yes, it would be great for them to know how to use a few cool digital tools, but most importantly I want them to have a sense of digital citizenship, an awareness of the traps that exist and strategies to confidently navigate around these.

By the way, I found a great webquest about cyber-safety called 'Playing it Safe'. It looks as though it hasn't been updated for a while, but looks good nevertheless, and could easily be adapted. I'm planning to use this with my class next term, and will let you know how it goes when it's finished.

David Warlick has blogged recently about 21st Century literacies. He quotes extensively from Howard Rheingold. These comments struck me in particular:

And don’t swallow the myth of the digital native. Just because your teens Facebook, IM, and Youtube, don’t assume they know the rhetoric of blogging, collective knowledge gathering techniques of taggers and social bookmarkers, collaborative norms of wiki work, how to tune and feed a Twitter network, the art of multimedia argumentation - and, by far most importantly, online crap detection. (Rheingold)

This comment could apply equally to the socio-emotional literacy our kids need. Digital natives? Digital citizens? A citizen of anywhere needs to be inducted into the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and it is a mistake to mistake technical fluency with ethical and responsible use.


  1. Hi Craig, Great to see the inspiration happening for you. I worked alongside Andrew Churches for a while a few years ago - great to hear that he is still pushing the boundaries in ICT and Education. Hey you might be interested in the project i Coordinate at AUT - We look at internet safety issues as well as general digital literacy stuff (and other things). Cheers, Nigel Smith

  2. Thanks Nigel, I'll definitely check it out - it could be very helpful for an essay in the not so distant future! It sounds like a fascinating area to be researching. I'm off to bookmark it now!