A Reflection on Cyber Civics
by Dirk Tiede, Waldorf School at Moraine Farm Substitute Teacher and Comics Creator
This past weekend, our school hosted a workshop run by Diana Graber on teaching “Cyber Civics” to middle schoolers. Curious, I decided to drop in on the free lecture on Friday night. The topic was broad, but Graber handled it skillfully, outlining a convincing curriculum that focuses around teaching specific skills in critical thinking, identifying misinformation, dealing with online reputations, and participating effectively in the online world. What struck me was that not only should our students be learning these essential abilities, but current events underscore the importance that we as adults need to exercise them as well.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an artist who began substitute teaching at the school last fall. My background is in writing and drawing comics, and I’m currently teaching an elective on creating comics with the sixth and seventh graders. The Cyber Civics workshop grabbed my attention because I specifically developed my professional career online. I started out as a web designer during the tech boom in the late nineties, and became a digital content creator by publishing an online comic for over a decade, fostering communities of other creators and readers, and championing the internet as a “good thing” for our culture. However, in recent years with the rise of social media and the rise of mobile technology, the landscape changed around me, and my relationship to that technology changed. As my original enthusiasm was replaced by misgivings, I pulled back. I’ve spent the past couple of years re-evaluating that relationship. I went from someone who was “always on” to stepping away to regain some balance, and I’m still trying to find the right level of participation online. That is why this workshop captured my attention so strongly. If I, as a working professional adult who built a career online, have trouble navigating this world, what does that mean for our students who are just coming into this frontier at such an impressionable age? Clearly, as an adult, I can see how my own skill set could use some shoring up, and I’m certain I’m not the only one.
After the lecture, I immediately arranged to attend the workshop, changing my plans around for the weekend in order to do so. I did not regret it. The day was extremely stimulating, covering elements of the Cyber Civics program in detail starting with a discussion on how disruptive technologies like writing and the printing press parallel the rise of the internet and constant connectivity. Were you aware that Socrates thought the invention of the stylus would destroy our ability to remember?
We wrestled with the implications of online reputations that never go away—because Facebook never forgets—and struggled over what situations of online drama cross over into “cyber-bullying.” Is that picture you posted of your child in a fit of pride going to cause him to be teased at school? Will tagging someone be good for them or not? No easy answers here.
Then there was the segment on “C.R.A.P. Detection”—evaluating currency, reliability, authority, and purpose of information online. How do you discover if something is fake news or not? Checking out the author and finding out more about the website where an article is posted is important. Finding factual information online is no easy task, even for a seasoned adult.
Even more eye-opening was our deliberation on the “sexting” phenomenon and how toxic its implications are, even for kids not caught in the center of it. A young person who simply receives a “sext” could be potentially exposed to criminal charges. Kids are extremely vulnerable because they sit at a dangerous intersection between inflexible child pornography laws, their own raging hormones and the lack of self control that is absolutely normal in a teenager. This section of the workshop emphasized to me the importance that we have frank conversations between each other and our teens about serious subjects like this.
Finally, we discussed how taking a positive, proactive role in online participation is what is required. This points back to the importance of acting as a citizen online, and not just a consumer. Graber talked about becoming “upstanders” online who act responsibly while we engage. The goal is to spend more time producing new content when we are online than simply consuming it. Because creating an essay, piece of art or music, and starting a healthy discussion is better than simply clicking on a link, liking a post, or leaving an angry comment.
The first step in dealing with this technology is balance, of course. Students are given a project to go through a typical summer day and add up how much time they spend consuming or using digital media vs. other activities. Then they combine all their scores to see how much time they all spent in front of a screen of some sort. It adds up fast. We adults should consider doing the same thing for a day. Many of us are tied to workstations as a part of our jobs. We use email and Facebook and texting to keep in touch with colleagues and friends. Should we be surprised if our children are doing the same? Being mindful about how much time we spend online is the first step to regaining control over our usage habits. And if we ourselves can set a good example, perhaps our students will take notice and do the same.