Leaving Digital Footprints…and other thoughts from 6th graders

I’m officially a librarian for students in grades 7-12 and I realize this is Upper Division week on the blog, but I can’t stop thinking about a lesson that I taught to 6th graders last week. I’m hoping you can offer advice or feedback based on your own experiences with middle and high school students. It’s important to know that our school has four divisions, so 6th graders are the oldest grade in our Intermediate School. (Middle school is 7-8, and high school is the traditional 9-12.) This has the effect of keeping the 6th graders younger a bit longer.

The Tech Department collectively teaches the 6th graders a technology class twice a week. It lets the students get to know us, and we can provide a variety of topics based on our areas of expertise that keep technology exciting for them. Sample topics include blogging, video creation, and advanced search techniques. I teach a one-week unit on digital citizenship. The students had already spoken with another teacher about digital footprints and online tracking, and they followed up to that teacher’s class activity by searching for themselves online. In reading their private kidblog posts to prepare for class, I found posts like the following three. (Remembering that they are 6th graders being asked to blog in the last five minutes of class, so spelling and grammar aren’t always perfect.)

 When I looked up my name in Google Images my Instagram profile picture came up and I thought,”well that’s a little weird.” So then I went to web and It came up with my Wildcats football team, my [name of local park] basketball team, where I live, and my school and I think that’s even weirder. I sorta liked it and sorta didn’t. I thought that it was weird that people were allowed to that and why? I just thought it was strange and unnecessary.

I am not quite sure how I feel about digital footprints. Someways it is good, but someways are bad. I think it is good in case you don’t know your phone number or address, you can just search up your own name, and it would show you all your information. But, I am not sure i feel all that comfortable with anyone who looks up my name to know my name, number and where i live. I don’t like to know that people know all my personal information and everything else about me.

I think my digital footprint would say that I play tennis and skiing and minecraft. I think that my digital footprint could be different though because there are other people with the same name as me! I feel good and bad because bad because people can find me and try to hurt me or something like that or they could hack my accounts! I feel good that I have a lot out there about tennis but I don’t like the fact that there is information out their that is not true about me! I feel like they should not be able to post things about people that may not be true! When I searched my name on the internet a there were a bunch of pictures of criminals and wanted people on there.

This is heavy stuff, and it contrasted with most of what adults are writing about digital natives: the erosion of privacy, the willingness to share, the comfort with constant connection, etc. These were kids who were anxious about technology’s presence in their lives and what it meant for their own safety. Beginning with an open-ended question, the kids jumped first to the fears of not getting into college because a friend might sabotage their chances by posting an inappropriate photo of them. They are also very concerned about being mistaken for other people who share their name and “why Google doesn’t care if what it is posting is true.” (Golden opportunity to talk about what Google does and does not do!) However, they soon turned to the fear that maniacs might start coming to their sports games with plans of kidnapping them. A new direction was clearly needed, so we transitioned to a conversation about cartoon profiles, acceptable image editing, and the best ways to email a teacher if you fall behind on your homework.

I entered their classroom with questions that were never fully answered. Most importantly, Are we using “scare tactics” in the younger grades to keep children from posting too much? Sixth grade is when many of our students start getting social media accounts, and I believe that it’s much more realistic to teach about privacy settings and empathy towards one’s peers. Even if they are currently uncomfortable with their own digital footprints that have been created for them by the profiles they have and the teams they are on, they will begin to post information about themselves over the next three years. In most cases, “stranger danger” from psychopaths is not the immediate concern; bullying, both actively and by exclusion, is a danger in far too many schools.

Like many adults, I will quickly say that I’m happy my teen years passed before technology was ever-present. I reinvented myself throughout my teen years, sometimes even with different groups of friends on the same day. Technology researcher dannah boyd has said that what teens most desire is connection with other teens and a chance to discover themselves, and this will occur with or without technology.

My questions to the group are two-fold.

How do you teach internet safety in your school in a way that promotes self expression, creativity, and safety?

How do you approach the subjects of parents who set vastly different rules and expectations for Internet use and social media presence, particularly in the middle grades when tweens are just starting out and need both safety guidelines and freedom?