Kids and Internet Safety: Start the Conversation!

At The New Century School, technology is an important component of the curriculum. But, with technology, comes cyber activity—at least a little anyway. Though the practice is kept to a minimum, sometimes TNCS students go online to research a project, participate in interactive learning games, or enter a learning portal such as SuccessMaker. Parents should know that TNCS has oversight, internet restrictions, and firewalls in place—students are not given independent time to surf the ‘net. Activities are overseen by teachers and correspond to a classroom lesson. TNCS has integrated some very high-tech systems that are regularly updated.

Home Agreement on Internet Usage

School probably isn’t the only place where children probably spend some time online, though. To tie together home and school usage, an email from TNCS homeroom teachers to parents went out on Friday, April 5th providing an overview of a very important topic that upper elementary and middle school students have been exploring with Dean of Students Alicia Danyali during Quarter 3. Students in grades 4–8 reviewed their online habits, learned what constitutes cyber-bullying in various scenarios, and were encouraged to broach the topic at home with the adults in their lives.

The email also included this suggested template for a “home agreement” on internet usage. “By no means is TNCS navigating or superseding rules currently in place at home, but if you are seeking some guidance regarding talking points that ensure everyone in your home is aware of expectations, you may consider this document as a “jumping off point,” explained Mrs. Danyali. “It’s not limited to what is shown here, but this is a good place to start.”

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School and Home Partnerships for Safe, Healthy, Happy Children

This Immersed post will delve a little deeper to explain how and why the discussion arose and why TNCS feels the conversation should be ongoing. We’ll walk through the document to provide a little commentary on each part. First, here is Mrs. Danyali’s rationale for this initiative:

Señora Duncan and I worked together to create this message. It’s a big topic that we feel should have a spotlight, especially for the 4th- through 8th-graders. It’s about having those bigger conversations of technology oversight in the school house and what that looks like in your house. It’s not a judgement of what people are doing—there’s no right or wrong. We’re just saying that we strongly encourage having the conversation. Maybe there are things parents haven’t thought of before because they might think their children are still too young for the conversation to be relevant. We want students to have an open line of communication with their parents at home, that they know they can to go to them with questions and concerns.

It’s hard to believe, but even at the age of 9, what a child does online is creating a permanent footprint. We all need to better understand what that means, and they need to know that there’s a safe place with the adults in their lives to go to.

What they are suggesting is a family agreement. This starts with reflecting on internet usage in your home. “Some of the reflection questions are meant to get parents thinking about their own online usage—again, not as a judgement—but because we are partners in the students’ education, safety, and well-being,” said Mrs. Danyali. Having studied the topic in school, it makes sense to also have a complementary or supplemental conversation at home. Questions such as, What is the amount of time we agree on? What are the boundaries? What are parental controls on your children’s devices? Do you know how to set parental controls? can really deepen awareness and even expose some areas that might need tightening up. “I have a tracker that tells me how much time I’m spending on my phone, which I really like, because it helps me avoid mindless use,” she explained.

As is likely the case at most schools, TNCS students run the gamut regarding home usage, from students who do not go online at all to students who are managing their own SnapChat and Instagram accounts. “Maybe their parents don’t always know what they are putting on these sites,” mused Mrs. Danyali. “Even though it sounds like everyone is being safe, the reality is, having that parent oversight is vital.”

Something some parents may not be aware of is that even some online video games have a chat feature, and home gaming systems can have an online chat feature. Do you know how to disable that, if necessary?

Once parents have reviewed their own usage habits and that of their children, the agreement part comes in, and this is where you are building trust. In effect, you are saying to your children: “I trust you to be on here for our agreed-on time period and to conduct yourself safely.” You are also telling them that you want to make sure they are protected: “If someone asks you for your address, come and tell me so we can block that person.”

“This is well worth investigating,” said Mrs. Danyali. “You are preventing predators from being able to come in that are savvier than we might realize. Even if your child does not go online at all at home and is not allowed to play video games, it’s important for this to be on you radar because it will become part of their world at some point.”

More on this in future, but sex ed expert Debbie Rothman recommends having a conversation about online pornography starting as early as age 8. Some parents may find that shocking, but children need to know how to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to what constitutes a healthy intimate relationship. “It’s important to have the conversation and get out ahead of the issue—there’s probably not many children who haven’t been exposed to some form of pornography by the time they hit high school, whether they sought it out or not. We are not having that conversation in school because that one is more appropriate at home, but we do have resources to support parents if they need it,” said Mrs. Danyali.

Social and Emotional Learning at TNCS

As Dean, Mrs. Danyali has always been deeply invested in the “invisible curriculum” at TNCS and on the values of the school and its students—social and emotional learning (SEL), basically. She became aware that social media apps led to problems in relationships among students, some of whom may have misinterpreted what was actually being conveyed, and this was stressful for students. “When that face-to-face component is missing, you can’t pick up on facial cues,” she explained. “That has led to misunderstandings.” To address this as part of the unit wrap-up activity, she divided the whole cohort into two groups so they could engage in some role-playing to explore how to effectively communicate. They very quickly saw how face-to-face communication provides information that a text cannot convey . . . no matter how many emojis are included.

“I also worked with a TNCS family who has helped in this area in the past, and they shared an FBI site called Safe Online Surfing that has links to online safety curricula, formatted as games tailored to grade so it’s appealing to students,” said Mrs. Danyali. This screen shot of the 4th-grade portal takes users in an interactive journey through 1. Safe Surfing, 2. Personal Information, 3. Crossing to Safety, 4. Computer Health, 5. Treasure Hunt, 6. Word Search, and 7. Marine Matching.

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Each TNCS student had to answer a set of questions about internet safety to assess their level of background knowledge. They then did the game itself independently.

Where Do We Go from Here?

And where did this idea spring from in the first place? Mrs. Danyali has long been incorporating best practices that she has gathered from a multitude of articles and from researching dozens of websites recommended by other educators. “I keep a file of these recommendations to draw from, and they are all different based on individual preferences,” she explained.

One recommended website is InternetMatters.org, which even offers this downloadable poster on Internet Manners.

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Consider printing this and posting it near a home computer or by your child’s desk. Positive habits encouraged in your children today may lead to a less dystopian cyberspace for all to enjoy safely participating in.

Internet Safety Assembly at TNCS

The New Century School takes the health and safety of every member of its community very seriously.

As part of an ongoing Quarter 4 Health and Safety unit for upper elementary and middle school students, TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali hosted a special assembly on May 2nd to talk about safe practices to use while online. “This week we are starting to look at different topics related to all the tools you need as students as you continue to develop and grow,” she explained. As is becoming more and more evident, the risks of unsafe cyber practices include identity theft and various forms of exploitation, among others. Teaching children how to safeguard themselves in the digital realm is therefore critical.

Building Cyber Awareness

To start off the discussion, Mrs. Danyali asked students to fill out a questionnaire about their Internet and computer use: “This is not going to be shared with anyone else, but it’s very important we have this conversation. If you don’t know how to answer something, skip that question. Try to answer honestly, and remember that there are no right or wrong answers here. Also, do not put your names on this survey; we are keeping this anonymous.”

The survey came from the Institute for Responsible Online and Cellphone Communication, known more familiarly as IROC2.org. This organization’s mission is to “. . . [communicate] a necessary Digital Consciousness™ that serves as the foundation for a uniform and proactive solution to any digital issue. The Institute is an ambassador to Digital Enlightenment™, and desires to construct a global digital community free of negative and sometimes irreversible consequences resulting from poor digital judgment.”

tncs-internet-safetyThe survey is quantitative, with a lower score correlating to less risky online behavior and practices. Mrs. Danyali explained the scoring system, and students tallied their results.

As you become more dependent on digital technology—you probably can’t avoid it, neither for personal nor for school life—we need to learn about digital safety and being consciously aware of what that means. It is probably unrealistic for any one of us to maintain a score of 0 our whole lives, but if you fell into the category of 0–30, you are using your digital tools and technology responsibly.

She then gently explained that a higher score might indicate a need to be more conscious of online behavior. “We’ll continue to talk about what all this means, but everyone should make sure you are changing your passwords regularly and that you are only visiting websites your parents have approved.”

The group then talked about the concept of a digital footprint with students defining that as what other people can see of their online presence. Mrs. Danyali then closed the discussion by reiterating her basic message: “This is a very important life skill. We can’t get away from technology, but we can choose to use it responsibly at school and at home. This conservation we’re starting is about how to manage technology and make conscientious choices. We’re talking about healthy habits so you stay safe. We’re here to learn and support each other.”

How Can You Get in on the Discussion?

If you would like to see the questionnaire in its entirety and/or assess your own cyber risk, visit: http://www.iroc2.org/CyberSafetyRiskAssessment.html.

It’s a good idea to revisit these topics at home with your children. For one thing, you’ll want to understand what their online habits are and explain any needed adjustments. Secondly, these topics are complex, and some students may not have completely understood what they were being asked. In order to respect students’ privacy, the discussion and Q&A held at TNCS was general in nature—again, everything was kept completely anonymous. Addressing individual questions, however, can and should be done safely at home.

For a free 28-page Digital Guide for parents in pdf form to help jumpstart the conversation, click here: https://www.iroc2.org/149.html.