Beauty Contests? What Will It Take for Us to Really Lead Our Digital Kids?

socialmediakidsIt is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever a new technology feature comes into vogue, children and adolescents come into possession of digital skills in want of copious adult tutelage.

Or at least this should be universally acknowledged.

Just now, in my part of the world, we are in the midst of an Instagram beauty contest phase. Interestingly, however, parents and educators who have spent the past 10 years connected in any way to the teen-tween digital world will recognize that, at a minimum, this is actually beauty contest 3.0.

I recall two other student beauty contest episodes, each occurring on a different digital playground. Initially they appeared on make-your-own websites, then on MySpace. Now we have Instagram.

As I said the other morning to a concerned mom, behaviors get recycled each time a neat new whiz-bang digital opportunity emerges. Typical kid behavior gets paired with a powerful app, but mostly without benefit of that adult tutelage referred to above. Also, kids love contests so it’s natural that the idea comes up.

Children are growing up in two worlds. Families and schools now have two childhood environments to supervise —  face-to-face and the digital — and kids are learning and playing in two places, irrevocably intertwined. School and home guidance acclimate children mostly to the face-to-face world, assuming that the lessons automatically carry over to digital endeavors. They don’t.

What would happen if at school we adults got serious about modeling and talking to children about 21st Century digital citizenship and making ethical decisions — including comments about online expectations and interactions — each time we focused on classroom and course requirements, assigned a project, or led a discussion about respect and community? Would things change if we commented about the digital playground as often as we discuss the ups and downs of recess and the interactions in the hallways? How might things go if we incorporated discussions of online behavior into the life of each class, encouraging students to brainstorm solutions to contemporary digital problems (like Beauty Contests)? See Learning Lots More About Things I Know Lots About.

Some time ago, when I recognized that my fifth graders were sick and tired of getting huge doses of digital information only after problems occur, I wrote a post for the Teaching Tolerance blog, The Digital Citizenship Minute, describing how I’ve found that kids are eager, maybe even desperate, to learn more from adults, and especially their teachers, about the digital world.

Our students want to hear what we think, meshing it with what they think, but they do not want to be lectured. They hope we can share how we learn new things, how we handle digital problems, and why we use one type of social media and not another (and they want us to at least try something [and not give it up]). They would like us to comment on the quality of a web page before we proceed with the curriculum lesson and to find out a bit about new digital crazes (and talk about them) before problems occur.  And in the past five years, children in every fifth grade class have asked me how to get adults to stop saying something like “I don’t do social media,” or “I’m hopeless at technology.”

Last September most schools knew that students, some younger than 10 years old, were playing on Instagram. What if at school we had included our thoughts — at all of those beginning-of-the-year assemblies and orientation sessions — about Instagram, reminding students that our expectations extend into that photo sharing domain (and that it’s so easy to make mistakes)?

So much of what we teach in our schools we accomplish in moment-by-moment conversational lessons, but we simply aren’t as effective at integrating the moment-by-moment digital world lessons into our conversations. We can do better

We need moments for digital citizenship and discussions that help students figure out how to live healthier lives — simultaneously — in two different worlds.

(With heartfelt apologies to Miss Austen)

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