Social media and text messages have blurred the lines between students’ school lives and private lives. While most schools take clear steps to protect students at school, more schools are beginning to consider the need to set policies that apply to students’ activities outside of school.
When it comes to questionable online activities like cyberbullying and sexting, kids sometimes feel pressured to follow the crowd. Teachers can play a crucial role in setting high expectations for online behavior. Schools can open conversations about online safety so that students learn to set personal boundaries and feel more comfortable reporting incidents like bullying and harassment.
Since the birth of the Internet, adults have been worried about kids sharing too much online. The fears are varied — and valid. Kids can open themselves to identity theft by offering up passwords, birthdays, and other personal data to complete strangers. Likewise, the same information can make them vulnerable to sexual predators. Students fail to consider how the things they post online can haunt them years down the line.
On the plus side, teens are becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect themselves online. In a Pew survey, 60% of teens said that they had made their Facebook profile private so that only their approved friends could see it. Another Pew survey found that 70 percent of teens had sought advice about how to manage their privacy online. And in terms of where teens get help with online issues, the largest portion — 42% — said they would ask a friend. Forty-one percent said they would ask a parent, and 9% would ask a teacher. Younger teens were more likely to seek help from a parent or teacher.
What can you do?
- Have students commit to following school rules. Get a copy of your school’s computer use policy, go over it with students, and have them sign it. Students need to know that you will hold them accountable for their actions. If your school doesn’t have an acceptable-use policy, you can find examples online to create one.
- Have a classroom conversation about how technology works. Your students might be whizzes with Instagram and Snapchat, but do they know how these apps collect and store data? Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram keep permanent records of all of the information they collect. Even Snapchat, beloved by teens for its disappearing messages, keeps unread messages on a server for 30 days. And some programs that open Snapchat content outside of the app allow recipients to permanently save messages without the sender knowing.
Social media and text messages are vital to many students’ social lives. Students use them to make weekend plans, support one another after a breakup, or commiserate about that difficult test. But sometimes students cross the line and use technology to bully or harass other students. We’ve all heard the stories about victims of cyberbullying — some choose to change schools and some even commit suicide.
The best approach to protecting students against cyberbullying is to be proactive and create guidelines before problems arise. Schools should create a policy that deals with cyberbullying that happens outside of school and then ensure students know that they can be punished.
What can you do?
- Get students involved. Seek out student input when the school is creating or updating guidelines about technology use. They know how their peers are using — and abusing — technology. Students are more likely to follow rules, and encourage others to follow them, when they feel ownership of the process. Further, you can check in with students to see whether the guidelines are effective and to learn when there are new issues that need addressing.
- Create a school mission statement or student bill of rights. A bill of rights sets positive expectations for the school. It could guarantee that students are able to learn in a safe environment and that they are treated with respect.
- Use technology to help. The KnowBullying app provides warning signs of bullying and tips to prevent it. It also offers conversation starters to help educators and parents connect with kids. Yik Yak, the anonymous messaging app that has become popular on college campuses, has been setting up geofencing to prevent messages at middle schools and high schools. Download the app, and check that your school is protected.
- Make sure your school has a reporting system that is easy for witnesses and victims to use. Provide a simple way for parents and students to report cyberbullying and other problems without fear of retaliation.
Sexting often becomes an issue for schools when a dating couple breaks up, and one of the spurned teens passes along an old sext to other students. A lot of middle school and high school students are sexting, and schools and state governments are still figuring out how to handle this. In some states, sexting is prosecuted as a felony, with the same level of punishments as possessing child pornography.
While sexting might seem difficult to detect and stop, research suggests that adult intervention could change teen behavior. The most influential study on sexting was released in the journal Pediatrics in 2012. Of the students surveyed, 28% said they had sent a naked photo through text or email, and 31% said they had asked someone to send a sext. Girls were far more likely to have been asked to send a sext, and nearly 60% of them said that they were very bothered by the request.
If you need more reason to actively discourage this behavior, a follow-up study showed that sexting was a gateway to riskier sexual behaviors. So, a student caught sexting may be starting on a path to more dangerous choices. You can help stop that.
What can you do?
- Check whether your school or district has a policy on sexting. If so, make sure that your students know the policy and that it is posted where they can read it. If not, ask that one be created.
- Inform students of your state’s laws on sexting. In some places sexting is a felony, and convicted teens would have to register as sex offenders.
- Involve the whole school community. Use an email or newsletter to inform parents of policies related to sexting, and ask them to speak with their children about it. We know that teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors when their parents engage in open dialogue with them. As a last resort, parents can have the cell phone carrier eliminate photo- and video-uploading for their child’s phone. Teens will still be able to take photos and videos; they just won’t be able to share them.
- Make sure your school has an easy-to-use reporting system. As with cyberbullying, students need to be able to report problems without fear that they will be embarrassed.
Almost all schools use filters to deter kids from getting into trouble online, but plenty of kids might accidentally circumvent these filters. Okay, maybe it isn’t accidental. Regardless, have a plan for these incidents so that you remain unruffled.
What can you do?
- Provide students — and parents — with the rules. School computer policies should discuss inappropriate content, password security, and viruses and malware. Enforcing the rules becomes easier when you know that students are aware of them.
- Stay cool. Sometimes your students really might stumble upon inappropriate content online by accident. If this happens, tell them to immediately close their laptop, or turn off their computer, and step aside so that you can deal with the problem.
Now, Keep up
Teens turn to their friends for advice about digital life because they think their parents and teachers are clueless about technology. Talk to kids about which apps and platforms they are using. Do a bit of research to learn the potential hazards of each program. Then put that knowledge to use. Your school can prepare for quick intervention by creating a computer-use policy, and students who know the consequences of inappropriate behavior will be less likely to break the rules. Your newfound knowledge might even help you gain the confidence of your students. They’re more likely to seek your advice if you know that Facebook is so over.