Pay Attention to Potential for Cyber-bullying Before it Starts

An article in today’s New York Times, Online Bullies Pull Schools into the Fray, describes the enormous difficulties that texting, e-mail, Facebook, and other unlimited online activities cause for Middle School students, their parents, and their schools. Take some time to read it and reflect.

My reflection leads me to think that while cyber-bullying is the immediate problem, the larger issue is the need to change the way parents and their children think about digital tools. While me must always address problems, it seems way too late to effectively change errant digital behavior in Middle School if students have not received years of training in the art of digital citizenship long before they arrive in sixth grade.

Behavior and digital behavior go hand-in-hand. Parents regularly address civil, polite, and respectful behavior from the moment a child arrives at his or her first play-group. Does digital behavior get the same parental attention? The moment a child sits at a computer or sees mom and dad working on e-mail, the citizenship lessons should extend to the digital world. If the conversation does not start until a child gets a phone that texts and takes pictures — an entertaining toy from perspective of the youngster — it is way to late.

Despite the many personal reactions in the Times article, it appeared that no people or organizations were promoting digital education, for parents and students, at home and school. Shouldn’t every PTA and Parent Association in the country be holding training sessions and evening classes to help parents develop some control over the digital tools they have given to their children?

In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics published a Media Education Policy Statement recommending that all yearly health exams include taking a media history. Thus for more than ten years pediatricians have been doing media assessments at yearly check-ups. Are they discussing their guidelines with parents? The image to the right is an example of a comprehensive form from the pediatricians Media Matters campaign.

One can argue that cyber-bullying problems and inappropriate use of digital tools (toys) are becoming public health issues, and almost no one disputes that the problems are putting at pre-adolescents and teenagers at risk. Perhaps the Parent Teacher Associations should get together with the pediatricians and plan digital parenting seminars in the towns that appeared in the article.

Schools also need to make digital citizenship activities a part of the ongoing curriculum from the earliest grades, starting the training long before erratic pre-adolescent behavior begins. I’ll leave that for another post.

Digital behavior problems, like those discussed in Online Bullies Pull Schools into the Fray, is not solved by disciplinary measures and school administrators’ “cracker-jack” detective work. Progress will only be made when everyone accepts that the world has changed  irrevocably, and that all of the community stakeholders — schools, parents, teachers, and counselors — need to back up a bit and figure out some “rules of the road” to help children and their parents understand the power of today’s digital tools.

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