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How to keep kids safe online

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Teaching children to stay safe in what for adults can seem to be an ever-daunting online world is a tall order.

Adrienne Renner, who teaches at Presentation High School in San Jose, California, has been on the school’s technology team ever since she was hired 23 years ago. But it’s only been in the past couple of years that her freshman-required course on computer apps included a unit on digital safety and ethics.

It wasn’t enough that new students knew how to master Google Docs and the other Google apps, or how to use an iPad, basic keyboarding skills, or any of the other tech tasks needed to get classwork and homework taken care of in a timely manner.

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“We had a director of technology at Presentation introduce me to,” Renner told Catholic News Service. “It was when we were making changes in the curriculum. We felt it was important to have the students learn about digital citizenship: privacy, copyright information, how to do research and that kind of thing.”

Common Sense, a non-profit with offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco, aims to improve the lives of children, families and educators through its educational materials and information resources. It developed the digital citizenship curriculum that Renner incorporated as one of the six units of her course.

Generally, learning is not supposed to be fun. But there’s always the “aha” moment when scales fall from the eyes.

“This creates so much discussion it’s unbelievable,” Renner said of the digital citizenship unit. “The conversation about cyberbullying, the way students take selfies and the kind of things that they post online. Those are conversations that we have for sure.”

She added, “Some of the topics are about privacy, keeping things private and making sure students aren’t changing their privacy settings. What kind of relationships they have online, what to do if someone you don’t know contacts you” are also ripe subjects for conversation, Renner noted, in addition to “the digital footprints that you leave behind (that) is very important, and what you do during high school could follow you into college, it could affect you from getting into college. And carries you into your career. If someone does a Google search on you. … It’s a lot of topics, and they’re all very relevant.”

There was no pushback from parents at the Catholic high school, sponsored by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “No. No, no, no, no, no. Not at all,” Renner said in a telephone interview. “We are right smack in the middle of Silicon Valley where all these social media companies are. Our parents and administrators are all aware of what our kids are using they want them to be safe and using things appropriately.”

Michael Robb, Common Sense’s director of research, said, “One of the great things that schools can do is teach digital citizenship, how to be responsible and safe online, how to think about social media in a larger context, that what you do online is part of who you are offline.”

He added Common Sense’s digital citizenship curriculum, tailored to different age groups, is used in thousands of schools across the nation, and is free.

In a telephone interview with CNS, Robb said that, in essence, kids take to new tech like a duck to water.

“I think there’s something generational going on. A lot of these things were already there. It doesn’t seem like new technology to them,” he said. “It doesn’t have that fancy sheen to it. They’re not afraid of it. They’re engaged from a lower age. That’s not to say that they’re all expert users.

Robb said the Common Sense Census, which polled children ages 8-18 online about their media usage habits, talked little about homework issues, but how they used media while doing their homework. Over 70 per cent of them are listening to media while doing their homework, he noted; 50 per cent are watching TV or are engaged in social media simultaneously while doing their homework.

There was little as well about how frequently students used technology to complete homework assignments either at home or school. Robb said there are a number of directions a future survey could take, this being one of them.

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