The importance of teaching cyber safety and digital citizenship

We frequently think that our students know more about technology than we do. Often that’s true when it comes to being able to use the latest gadgets; however, we thus often also assume that they’re using the technology wisely and that’s unfortunately not always the case.

Global citizens

The internet enables an amazing interchange of ideas and thoughts. We can now comment on videos shared with people we’ve never met or even heard of thousands of kilometres away, instantly and visible to the world at large. While that’s amazing, many such interactions are characterised by emotional and physical distance – we can’t see or know anything about the people we talk to online and care less about them as a result.

The easy access to a global audience and often anonymity has led to a pandemic of incredibly hurtful and offensive comments online. We need to look no further than the comment section of a popular YouTube video to see this kind of behaviour. John Suler called this the Online Disinhibition Effect (2004) and it has very real consequences, ranging all the way from mild annoyance to suicide.

Invisible bullying

Bullying used to be a visible thing. Anyone observing a school yard could quickly see which students were ganged up on by mobs of fellow students, which made intervention relatively easy – at least in places as public as the school yard.

This has of course completely changed with the internet. Bullying has now found its way into the digital domain and as such, it’s very difficult for outsiders to witness the bullying unless the victims speak up.  Kids used to at least feel safe at home but can now potentially receive abusive messages 24/7, from anyone and anywhere in the world.

What we often tend to forget is that those of us who grew up in a pre-internet world often separate what happens online from what happens at home or at school. For kids born into the information age, this distinction is blurred or even lost completely. A tarnished online reputation is a tarnished real-life reputation for most of our students.

Staying safe online

Hardly a week goes by without a fairly believable email from Facebook or Apple, warning me that my account will be shut down unless I click the link in the email, which, upon closer inspection, takes me no-where near Facebook but a blog in Russia, ready to harvest my personal information or worse!

Identity theft and other forms of cyber crime have made our personal details so valuable that criminals are eager to get their hands on them, and while we may have a healthy amount of suspicion when we’re online, our students may not be as vigilant. Knowing which kinds of personal information can be shared on the internet is vital for 21st century citizens’ safety. Thieves and paedophiles are actively using the internet to find and exploit children and it is our job to help them keep their eyes open and information safe.

Our responsibility

As teachers, being aware of these issues is important but not enough. It’s our responsibility to keep our students safe and gently show them how to do the right thing, whether it is in the classroom, school yard or the internet. We can’t fix the fact that these comments are anonymous, but we can help our students realise what the consequences of their actions are. Children (and adults!) need to be aware of the effects of their actions and self-monitor their behaviour to truly contribute to the rich conversations that can happen online when everyone contributes positively. We also need to know how to make life as difficult as possible for criminals trying to exploit our information.

Free lessons

Our contribution to help you address these issues head-on is Great Global Citizens, a suite of free online interactive lessons for 9-13 year-olds about digital citizenship and cyber safety. The lessons explore concepts such as protecting personal information, cyberbullying, and safe internet browsing.

If you’d like to use our free lessons, simply create a new subject in Stile, head to our Public Library and pull them in. If you're not on Stile yet, you can sign up here for free