The Internet is a wonderful terrible thing . It is a precarious animal that has had some strange effects on culture and the way we behave and interact with information. For every positive thing that the Internet enables us to do, it usually also delivers an equally negative. As I’ve said in previous posts, I think social media yields a lot of positive possibilities (I may be biased because my own experiences have been only positive), but in many ways it is still in its infancy, and the hazardous nature of social media where people get into trouble are indicative of the “growing pains” of a culture that has been forced to evolve too much too quickly. Consequently we, as a culture, have not had the time or experience necessary to process the weight of all the possibilities social media has to offer. One of the things parents and teacher needs to be aware of is the implications this has on students.
The CBC documentary Sext Up Kids takes a hard look at the role the internet has played in commodifying the stomach churning reality of child sexuality. The documentary asserts that girls are sexualizing at a younger age, usually around 10 instead of 14 or 15. Of course social media is not the cause of this, but merely a tool that has been used to enflame an already out-of-control issue.
The documentary takes notice of the disney princess fandom that is prevalent in small girls and speculates that it may be the earliest seeds of developing a healthy sexuality, because the premise of most disney princesses is that they are the prettiest girl. By 13, girls have internalized the idea that they are an object of someone else’s desire and needs. Aside from increasing promiscuity, this also creates in the girls a disposition where all their goals and ambitions revolve around males.
The nefarious message here, as put by CBC, is “when girl meets boy, it’s all about the boy” and that there is only one way to be a female in this culture and it is a way the sets them up for all sorts of abuse.
Likewise, boys are steeped in a culture where female sexuality is viewed as a performance. In the end, both boys and girls are trained and conditioned to perpetuate a cycle of dysfunctionalism and disempowerment.
This was all true before the digital revolution, but the internet has offered another channel from which these problematic scripts can be perpetuated. They are now being propelled by the possibilities that smartphones and social media apps are opening up. For example, the internet has given the porn industry a platform from which it has become one of the fastest growing industries. Furthermore, recent studies have also shown a direct correlation between the demand for porn and a rise in human trafficking. “Sext Up Kids” states that 70-80 percent of boys watch pornography, with a vast majority of these boys reporting that their first exposure to it was when they weren’t even looking for it. What was once a fairly difficult thing to access is now equally difficult to avoid.
Among other concerns is the sheer amount of teenage life that is played out on digital plains. We are now putting a generation through school that has never known life without the internet. How do we get kids to think critically about something that is ingrained in their world and sense of community? How do we teach them to be kind on the internet, recognizing that what they post may have a much longer lifespan than their own?
How do we inspire them use the digital spaces to enhance their communities?
How do we give them the wit and courage to recognize and disengage from trolls and predators?
Cutting students off from the digital world is neither possible nor the right answer. Disqualifying digital literacy as an important outcome in the learning of students would only prove to handicap them for the world that tomorrow is bringing. The digital world has many wonderful enhancements to offer, and in order for our students to grow up to become empowered innovators and contributors to society, kids need to be taught to use it responsibly.
In recognizing that social media is here to say, we must learn to move passed the question “Is social Media a good thing or a bad thing?” and move onto the more prudent “What will we do to ensure that social media is a good thing?” To paraphrase Carol Todd, we can ensure our kids stay safe from car accidents and parking tickets by never letting them get their license or learn how to drive, or we can teach them the empowering practice of really good driving.
We need to strive to keep an open dialogue going between parents and kids. We need to be intentional about creating spaces where kids feel they are able to admit when they’ve made mistakes. This is a crucial feature of any learning experience.
Where Canadian education is concerned, it is my belief that digital citizenship should be headlined across the curriculum much the same way that Treaty Ed is. It is something that should be taught in every subject at every grade level, but not as a one-off lesson that makes recurring cameo appearances. Presentations on cyberbullying and internet safety are important, but it needs to go deeper than that. Digital citizenship needs to be something that informs our instructional approach and the way we engage our students. It is something that needs to be exemplified, modelled and practiced. Not only learned about, but learned through.