A few months back, a group of 7th graders who were studying digital footprints with the guidance of teacher George Mayo at Silver Spring International Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, interviewed me. "Do you think most kids know what their digital footprint is?" they asked.
"You're the experts!" I replied. "What do you know about digital footprints?"
The students gave me a definition right out of my worst nightmare: Digital footprints are the trails people leave behind when they live online—and Internet predators use these trails to track down careless tweens and teens. "At our elementary school, they really tried to scare us," explained a group member. "It's like they wanted us to be afraid of what would happen if we used the Internet."
Sadly, their definition sounds familiar, doesn't it? Schools—caught up in sensational stories about cyberbullying, sexting, and Internet predation—spend an incredible amount of time trying to frighten digital kids. Although some students are at risk because of careless choices—openly talking about sex in digital forums, posting inappropriate pictures of themselves or their friends to the Web, or failing to act when confronted with dangerous situations in social media spaces—those risks are often poorly understood by teachers, who receive little training about how to effectively introduce Internet safety and new media literacies to students (Online Safety and Technology Working Group, 2010).
Invulnerable but Invisible?
Scare tactics like those my 7th grade informants described are not only ineffective at changing student behaviors (Online Safety and Technology Working Group, 2010), but they also prevent students from seeing digital footprints as potential tools for learning, finding like-minded peers, and building reputations as thoughtful contributors to meaningful digital conversations. As technology expert Will Richardson (2008) explains:
One of my worst fears as [my children] grow older is that they won't be Googled well. … that when a certain someone (read: admissions officer, employer, potential mate) enters "Tess Richardson" into the search line of the browser, what comes up will be less than impressive. That a quick surf through the top five hits will fail to astound with examples of her creativity, collaborative skills, and change-the-world work. Or, even worse, that no links about her will come up at all. (p. 16)
That's an interesting dichotomy, isn't it? While schools are teaching students to worry about the consequences of being found online, Richardson is worried about the consequences for kids who
can't be found online. Educators need to bridge the gap between these two divergent views of how to live in a digital world, and two practices can help us do so.
- Take a tiered approach. Poke through the
Youth Safety on a Living Internet (2010) report, and you'll find that living online can be risky. Committing verbal and sexual harassment—as well as drifting into potentially unsafe interactions with unknown adults—is easier from behind a keyboard. But too many Internet safety programs commonly used in schools assume that all students are at equal risk in digital spaces. The truth is that students who engage in risky behaviors offline are more likely to engage in risky behaviors online.
Responsible Internet safety programs are tiered: Although all students receive basic training about responsible online behaviors, students who—because of psychosocial factors—are at higher risk in online spaces receive more targeted instruction. As the authors of the Youth Safety report explain, one-size-fits-all approaches to Internet safety are "analogous to inoculating the entire population for a rare disease that most people are very unlikely to get, while at the same time failing to inoculate the population that's most at risk" (p. 18).
- Help students build positive digital footprints. Whether they're working to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur—a project that George Mayo's students tackled (http://stopgenocide.wikispaces.com)—or doing a good deed every day for a month and sharing about it online—an initiative that 10-year-old Laura Stockman started to honor her grandfather's life (http://twentyfivedays.wordpress.com)—today's teens and tweens can come together electronically to learn about and act on issues that matter.
Students who see digital tools as vehicles for collective action around ideas they believe in are less likely to engage in risky behaviors online because they see social media spaces as forums for learning first and entertainment second. More important, students who see social media spaces as forums for learning begin to paint complex digital portraits of themselves by networking with like-minded peers, joining groups committed to studying topics of deep personal interest to them, and creating products that are an accurate expression of who they are and what they believe in.
Whether we're comfortable with it or not, digital footprints—which Richardson defines as "online portfolios of who we are, what we do, and by association, what we know"—are an inevitable by-product of life in a connected world. Instead of teaching students to be afraid of what others can learn about them online, let's teach them how digital footprints can quickly connect them to the individuals, ideas, and opportunities that they care most about.
Online Safety and Technology Working Group, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. (2010). Youth safety on a living Internet. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Richardson, W. (2008). Footprints in the digital age. Educational Leadership,
66(3). Retrieved from
William M. Ferriter (@plugusin on Twitter) teaches 6th grade science in Raleigh, North Carolina, and blogs about the teaching life at The Tempered Radical (http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/the_tempered_radical). He is the coauthor of Teaching the iGeneration: Five Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills with Web 2.0 Tools (Solution Tree, 2010). His latest book, Essentials for Principals: Social Media, will be published by Solution Tree in spring 2011; 919-363-1870;
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