I’ve been doing a lot of blogging about cyberbullying over the past few weeks. This is, in part, because of the recent death of yet another bully victim, but it is also more firmly rooted in getting at the heart of bullying in the 21st century. Unlike generations before them, our children today face immense challenges in their navigation of the technological landscape, and as a parent this simultaneously excites me and scares me to death.
The Benefits of Technology
My oldest daughter is 3, so the influence of technology in her life is limited to preschool-geared television programs, her Leapster and playing iPad with her grandparents, all activities ostensibly educational and decidedly offline. Though, as she ages, I know that my own home office and the allure of the computer will become greater. She was “typing” on this very document while I corralled her baby sister. Media, especially online and interactive media, are a fact of her life in ways unlike any generation before her.
This is not all bad, though. In fact, the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University has been studying the effects of interactive media on young children since 2001. This project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is dedicated to researching and reporting on what they call the “digital media environment in which children live and learn.” The importance of digital media, computers and the internet is inherent in projects like CDMC – they have clearly found that the newest generation is often positively affected by supervised, age-appropriate exposure to media such as television, videos and interactive computer games.
Setting the Stage
The purpose of projects like those as the CDMC highlight that this digital generation will be faced with many advantages as well as challenges as they grow and mature along with the internet. What then becomes obvious is the need to responsibly monitor and set the stage for young children in their use of online media and their development as responsible digital citizens.
As parents, we need to realize that the role we play as protector must extend into the four walls of our homes. Sometimes, especially in the case of cyberbullying, a child’s biggest enemy sits right in their room. This also means talking to children as young as preschool-age about responsible internet and computer use. Even at 3, my daughter understands that places lurk online that are “off limits.” I show her my own Facebook page and use it as a vehicle for age-appropriate discussion.
As educators, we must integrate discussions and lessons on digital citizenship into our curriculum as early as reasonably possible. Many kindergarten classrooms are equipped with computers these days, which should accompany discussion about their proper use. As children age, cyberbullying prevention should become part of the discussion before it can even begin. Children with older siblings especially will have been exposed to Facebook, blogging and text messaging even if they do not have independent access to those media. As responsible teachers and counselors, we need to anticipate that exposure and respond to it.
Bridging the Gap
The more research I conduct on bullying in this generation and the internet’s role in deaths like the one last month, the more convinced I become that the teens and tweens of today represent a test group dipping their toes into the waters of digital relationships developed since birth. Those of us who witnessed the internet’s own coming of age had the advantage of outsider status and those who are just being born will (hopefully) learn the lessons of those whose own coming of age has lifted the veil on the dangers of 24-7 communication and anonymous “comments.” The fact that cyberbullying has been addressed more and more over the past few years gives me hope for my own young children, but also presents an opportunity for us all to reopen the conversation about responsibility and respect, a good lesson no matter your age.