Growing Up Online

On January 22, 2008, the program FRONTLINE on PBS ran a program called Growing Up Online. You can watch the entire episode online, as well as read extended interviews, discuss the issues, and learn how to work within the issues. This is something that every parent and educator should probably watch, but it cannot just be taken at face value. This is where the discussion starts, not where the internet ends.

This episode was divided into 7 chapters. I am going to touch on each of these issues briefly, providing some of my own insights and opinions.

Chapter 1: Living Online. This is a problem that many people find themselves falling into. What do many of these students do with their “free time?” The online world has just about anything you can look for. Games. Sports. Interactions with people with similar interests. And you can make your experience fit you personally. You can personalize your own blog or website. You can arrange for your settings on your computer to fit whatever it is you want to do. And you can get sucked in. When I was in high school, there were days where I spent hours talking with both friends and strangers for hours on end in an AOL chatroom. It’s not like I wasn’t getting my school work done. I was always well-prepared for school. I read for pleasure on the side. I worked a part-time job. I spent time with my friends and family. So it didn’t dominate my life. But there are those that it does, and oftentimes, the only way to reach these people is through the internet.

Chapter 2: Revolution in the Classroom and Social Life. Can you say Classrooms for the Future? School districts here in Pennsylvania are taking control of the use of technology in the classrooms and promoting it. My school is a prime example of this. We were one of the first schools to apply and receive the grant, and since then, those of us involved in the grant have taken the initiative to make it something that fits us, expanding on what has been required of us. We have created a Central PA cohort for collaboration, combining three different Intermediate Units for sharing resources between coaches and teachers and opening up our classrooms so our students can collaborate (see this site for one way we’re doing this). This also goes in conjunction with students’ social lives, believe it or not. Just as I have a social network for sharing content, etc., my students can do the same. Who says that they have to get all of their content information from me? What if there’s a concept they just don’t get when I present it? Is it wrong of them to as a Trig student from a school in Ohio if they have a contact there? I know I have friends and contacts from all over the country who I can get information from. I am going to San Antonio for NECC 2008 this summer, and I have a Facebook contact who just moved there that can share information about the city with me (by the way, I only know this person through online interactions). It’s time to show our students how their social networks can enhance their education.

Chapter 3: Self-expression and New Identities. This is something where people act differently online than they do in person. Second Life (where did you go?) tried to bank on this idea, but turned out to be a bit of a novelty. But the idea behind this is that people use the internet to explore different personalities to try and learn who they are. The example in the show, Jessica, made a new personality for herself. She found a place where she felt she belonged, but may not have quite done it in the correct way. This one is open to interpretation, and I don’t know where I stand on this issue. But her parents basically made her “erase” the identity from her computer. The interesting thing about this is that, even though she was so upset with her parents, is that it seems to have brought them closer, and her parents even see it as saving their daughter’s life. So was it right or wrong? I think the answer is both yes and no.

Chapter 4: Child Predator Fear. This is what everyone thinks is the biggest problem facing our youth online, and it really isn’t much of a problem at all. Most kids know not to share (nor do they want to) information about where they live or too “hook up” with a random stranger. They don’t mind socializing online, but they don’t want anything unwelcome. Kids are smart, and they know how to stop this. Still, there is the issue of predators out there. Talk to your kids about them and make sure they’re smart about what information they share and who they share it with. This also brings us to the next chapter.

Chapter 5: Private Worlds. I find it amazing that people will share their private life with complete strangers but not thier parents. But today’s younger generation seems to not mind. Think about this: In the post-9/11 world, we see a loss of privacy all over the place. Kids today are not only getting used to it, they’re embracing it. However, those of us “in power” (teachers, parents, employers, etc.) don’t see it as something to embrace. Kids are posting pictures online that others would never even think of taking in the first place. As was stated in the program, this is leading to the largest generation gap since the introduction of rock ‘n roll.

Chapter 6: Cyberbullying. It’s amazing how this was kept to the end, as this may be the largest negative issue of the internet. The home used to be a safe haven. I could go home, and nobody could get to me. Now, I can go online, and someone who has been bullying me can continue to do so. There are times when there is no end, and parents and teachers may never know about it. How do we stop this growing threat? “The internet has now become a weapon…”

Chapter 7: Updates. This one ties things together and reflects on these issues.

“The loss of communication is tough.” When kids are younger, they share everything with their parents. However, as they age, they become more secluded and what to control who they share things with. This is often a difficult issue for parents, which often leads to them trying to take control of the situation, which leads to more stubbornness from their kids.

This is a tough thing to try and work out. You can’t tell a parent how to raise their kids, especially a single guy like me. If I were to pass off parenting advice, who would take it? But, then, how DO we educate parents and students about all of these issues? What path must we follow to fight the negatives of the internet and to promote the positives? I know that kids don’t want to be controlled, but parents don’t want to lose control. Kids want to be able to run their own lives and grow as individuals, and parents have a job where they need to protect their kids. That will never change. But if parents try to take control of every situation, without input from their kids, what will happen next? Don’t allow them to have a Facebook? They’ll go to a friend’s house and create one. Make them let you know what’s going on online? They’ll try to shut you out. Be sneaky and watch what they do without telling them? They’ll find out and bypass what you’re trying. The best way is to talk with your kids about these issues. Let them know your concerns. Let them know what you feel and that you’d like to be involved, and if necessary, you will take measures to follow up on that. They may not be happy, but they may feel as if they are given a choice. Include them in your decisions (I know, it’s tough to do). But if you try to take over without they’re input, I’m sure you’ll hear, “It’s my life to live, and I’ll live it like I want!”

So, at the end of all of this, I am left wondering, what is our responsibility as educators in this issue? I try to do my best at getting my students to make informed decisions. I let them know that we can watch what they do on the computers at school, and I have a MySpace and Facebook (and Xanga) that they can access, and I let them know I can access theirs. If they tell me there are things on there they don’t want me to know, then I tell them not to put it online, “private” or not, because if someone wants to know, they can know.

I’d like to know if there are any programs out there in other schools and communities about these issues? Are there student groups who would like to deal with these issues? How do we get parents and students to work together to make the online environment safe and friendly for everyone?

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