Educators help prepare young students for online obstacles

  • Third grader Zoey Johnson (center) explains what she has learned about digital citizenship to the class at Center Woods Elementary in Weare. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/14/2022 3:51:48 PM
Modified: 5/14/2022 3:50:00 PM

Third-grader Zoey Johnson knows a few things about how to be a good citizen online.

She knows to be kind and not say mean things to other people in messages. She knows what personal information is not okay to share on the internet. And she knows that if a suspicious link or message pops up on a device she should stop what she’s doing, and ask a teacher or a parent for help.

She’s not sure if these things are applicable to her life just yet, but she thinks she’ll probably use the skills later on.

Zoey and her classmates at Center Woods Elementary in Weare have been learning about digital citizenship in their enrichment class with teacher Kate Rodgers. On Friday afternoon, the third-graders clustered together on a colorful rug in the corner of Rodgers’ classroom and listened while Rodgers told them about follow the “circles of responsibility” when doing things online: being responsible for yourself, for your community and for the world.

When they were finished with the lesson, the students got to try out using the app Blockly to program robots to move through an obstacle course.

“They’re growing up with technology from the time they’re very small, so I really can’t focus enough on teaching them to be safe online,” Rodgers said. “In this day and age, a lot of students are on computers and tablets without parents there watching them and supervising, so I think it’s important to talk about it as soon as we can about how the internet is not always a safe place. They need to protect their information and their digital footprints.”

New Hampshire teachers are incorporating lessons about media literacy and digital citizenship students to elementary school students, starting as early as kindergarten, in order to equip students with the skills they need to navigate an online world. Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic increased screen time for students both in and out of school, making the lessons in digital wellness even more important.

Heather Inyart is the executive director of the Manchester-based organization Media, Power, Youth, which teaches young people to engage with media in thoughtful and constructive ways that support well-being. Inyart says teaching kids about media literacy should begin from the moment kids are first introduced to technology and exposed to media.

“We see kids as young as preschool unsupervised on these different platforms,” Inyart said. “And so we see that media literacy education starts with parents, right when their children are born, and all the way through up through high school.”

Media, Power, Youth regularly partners with schools or youth programs and has created different curriculums that educators can use in their classrooms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools and extracurricular activities moved online, Inyart says more schools adopted one-to-one Chromebook devices and many parents relaxed their boundaries around screentime, with the result being that many students are now struggling to detach because they’ve spent so much time on the devices.

“There was an exponential use in technology in schools during this time, and because the switch happened so quickly, schools didn’t necessarily have as much time to talk to students about building some of the habits about using technology,” Inyart said. “This spring we’ve been doing a lot of more programming with schools, addressing some of these and helping students to build these healthy habits around technology use.”

Teaching about media literacy looks slightly different in each school district. Some, like Concord, have full-time digital learning specialists on staff, whose roles encompass digital citizenship lessons but also computer science, robotics and other technology. At other schools, lessons or units on media literacy are woven into the curriculum by librarians, STEM teachers or classroom teachers.

Digital citizenship lessons for the youngest students, in grades K to 3, tend to focus on being kind to others online and learning how to balance screen time. Older students will learn about the risks of oversharing online, talking to strangers, visiting unsafe websites and cyberbullying.

Jessica Knight, the digital learning specialist at Mill Brook School in Concord, leads activities to help her K to 2 students notice how they feel when they use devices, and to recognize the signals their body sends them that it’s time to stop.

“A lot of them said, ‘my eyes will hurt,’ ‘my body’s wiggly,’ ‘my back is tight,’ ‘I’m cranky,’ ‘I’m tired,’” Knight said. “They could recognize those different ways that they were feeling when they knew it was time to get off the device and go outside or do something like move their body.”

Peter Osiecki, the digital learning specialist at Barnstead Elementary School, tries to encourage students to identify other activities they can do outside of screens.

“Some students really aren’t aware of how much time they’re actually watching TV or using the computers or are on their parent’s phone in a restaurant, or wherever it might be,” Osiecki said. “My job is to recognize and have them recognize the alternatives in their lives.”

Some studies of middle and high school students point to a link between social media use and screen time and depression and anxiety among young people. Inyart said those more likely to happen when children are passively consuming content.

“Playing, say, a math game on your Chromebook in your math class is a different type of media use than scrolling Instagram,” Inyart said. “We need to make that kind of distinction between quality of time and what kids are doing there, versus passive media time.”

About 20% of New Hampshire students experienced electronic bullying in 2019, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and girls are more than twice as likely to experience electronic bullying than boys.

Osiecki, who teaches digital citizenship units to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and uses resources like Google’s online game Interland, which teaches young kids skills such as being kind online. He also uses Social Media Test Drive where older students can mindfully navigate simulations of different real-life scenarios that may occur on social media, whether it’s a conflict or seeing something that makes them feel upset.

“It’s an awareness builder, because recognizing a problem or a situation or an opportunity is really empowering for students,” Osiecki said.

At Mill Brook School, Knight teaches her students the difference between personal information that is okay to share online – favorite movies, favorite ice cream flavors – and information that is not okay to share, such as full names, addresses, phone numbers and passwords.

Knight has her elementary school students fill out a practice form that mimics the type of form kids might encounter when creating an account on a new website. The practice form has questions that range from “what’s your favorite kind of music?” to “what’s your full name?” and “what’s your parents’ credit card number?” and the students are tasked with identifying the questions that are appropriate to answer, and crossing out the ones that are not.

Osiecki said it’s important to teach kids to ask for help when something unusual happens online that may not know how to handle.

“It’s very difficult for them to recognize when they might be in a bad, compromising situation,” Osiecki said. “So one of the things that we talked about is getting and understanding who the trusted adults are, so that when they recognize something out of the norm – maybe a chat box opens up on a game that they normally work on – they know to just stop, close the computer and find mom, or get dad or find Mr. O.”

But knowing many students still navigate the internet unsupervised, Knight has also started teaching her first graders to identify websites that are appropriate or inappropriate for their age level, from “green-light” websites that are obviously child-oriented, with fun pictures and simple words to “yellow-light” or “red-light” websites intended for older people, which may be harder to read, or may require typing in information or filling out a form.

“If we start now then they’re going to grow up more balanced people,” Knight said. “Even as adults, we spend a lot of time on our phones, laptops, iPads. I think that if we model ways to balance our lives instead of just having them focus on ways that they can use technology, is going to be really important. If we teach them how to use it appropriately then hopefully that will make a difference in how they use that technology in the future.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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