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Teaching young people to be smart about social media


Once upon a time, the anonymous Internet predator was every parent's nightmare. Now they worry about enemies closer to home: the bully who doesn’t leave his taunts in the hallways or the college admissions officer using Facebook as a character reference. 

Even savvy parents may find it difficult to teach their kids how to be safe – and smart. So in California, schools have begun adding digital literacy lessons to their curriculums. In Santa Clara County, teachers start instructing students about online behavior as early as second grade, using a curriculum from a nonprofit Common Sense Media. Next year, they’ll begin with kindergartners.

The Trillion Dollar Footprint

Standing outside the computer room at Buchser Middle School, a seventh grader shares a warning:

"I heard a few stories about somebody who posted a picture that wasn't very good and somebody got a hold of it, and posted it all over the Facebook. And by the morning when everybody was going to school, everybody knew about it, and then started making fun of that girl. And then that girl went home and she hanged herself.”

The story isn’t an urban legend. It really happened, in 2009, when a Los Gatos High School freshman named Jill sent a nude photo of herself to a friend, who passed it around the school.

It’s rare for cases like this to lead to a suicide. But cyberbullying is common. Nearly one out of every three kids has experienced it.

“My friend posted a picture of him kissing his girlfriend,” another seventh grader says. “A lot of people were commenting, ‘I don't want to see that.’ A lot of people blocked him.”

“Online behavior can affect you in your future,” says Buchser High School computer teacher Brian Van Dyck.

In class, he wears Hawaiian shirts and plays the ukelele, but he’s serious about helping students understand the long-term consequences of their actions.

“You hear it over and over again,” Van Dyck says. “Kids are like, ‘Oh my. Their eyes get wide, their jaws drop. They're like, I didn't think of that.’”

It makes sense they don't at  12 or 13 years old. To help kids get the point, today Mr. Van Dyke is using an interactive lesson. The premise is that there’s a TV show called the Trillion Dollar Footprint.

“A TV show is hiring a host,” Mr. Van Dyck. “They've got their nationwide search down to two people. Jason and Linda. And you're going to get some information.”

Mr. Van Dyck hands out packets of information to the kids. It’s their own chance to play judge and jury. The packet includes Jason and Linda, the two candidates’, online profiles. The kids break into groups to study the information, and decide which one is the better candidate.

“People would say, ‘Oh he’s a great person, let’s look him up,’” predicts a seventh grade girl, the de-facto leader of her group. “And then when they find out what he really does – bad grade on the show.”

Turns out Jason is not someone you'd want to hire for your television program. He’s a liar. His online profile gives him away. One girl notes that Jason lied about his age and where he lived.

“He says his name’s Jason, but some other person’s saying that his name’s Justin,” she notices.

So, what’s the lesson?

“You should be careful about what you do in life,” one girl says,  “because it can pop up later and haunt you later in life.”

These kids have this lesson down solid. And there's evidence they take it with them when they leave the classroom. An outside program evaluator recently found that kids who take these classes report being better able to deal with bullying, and more aware of privacy controls.

Santa Clara Unified School District makes digital literacy a prerequisite for high school graduation. So far, they’re the only district to do that, but other districts around the Bay Area are incorporating technological skills into their teaching as well. So now you can add ones and zeroes to the three R’s – but don’t make that your password.

This story was produced for Chew on This, KALW’s new show about innovative solutions to big problems. Catch it every Monday this month at noon on 91.7FM.