With access to over 700 million websites and more than two billion people online, students today live in a very different world than we grew up in. Students today have awesome opportunities to learn online from any Internet capable device – a laptop at school, their mobile device, or their Xbox at home. These endless opportunities are the good part of the Internet and educational technology today.

However, every day there is a story about the bad and the ugly parts of the Internet. We hear about problems such as students bullying others using social media outlets, kids naively releasing too much personal information about themselves online, and immature teens posting photos of themselves they will soon regret.

Whose responsibility is it to warn children about the dangers and pitfalls of the Internet? Is it the responsibility of parents to teach their children how to be safe on the Internet? Are parents today even aware themselves of some of the complex technology and social media that children have access to? Should educators make students aware of the permanent damage that can be caused by hitting submit, send, or post? Who should teach children about right and wrong – about being a good digital citizen? The answer is simple: All of us! To learn to be a contributing member of the community that is the Internet, everyone must help teach our students the appropriate uses of various tools – social media, texting, chat rooms, and more. Students should be taught and reminded digital right from wrong at home and at school.

As an educational technology leader, I knew I could have a great effect on my students’ knowledge and understanding of digital tools and the Internet. For years I have trained teachers, presented assemblies to students, and worked with parents to discuss digital citizenship. I have learned that there are two levels on how to present this information.

For younger students (K-5 or so), a softer approach with broad topics have been effective. We discuss ideas like “netiquette” and how not to be a “troll” (someone who harangues and harasses people online). We talk about how, even if you do not see someone face-to-face, you should still be nice and respectful. We cover how to protect your privacy and the importance of not talking to strangers or giving them any personal information. We also discuss website validity – not everything on the Internet is true – and strategies how to find out if something is true or not. I try to keep this presentation light and fun with the goal of getting the students to think about and understand the Internet.

I learned that I needed a more serious, harsh message for older students and decided “older” included sixth grade and up. For the older students, I may only have one shot before they make what I call either a “poor life choice” or a “career-ending choice” so I present some heavy topics. I do warn the students in the beginning of my presentation that it won’t be a fun talk but it is an important message that they need to hear (and hopefully not for the first time). The following are some topics I share with the students:

  • Iknowwhereyourcatlives.com: This is a great site for cat pictures…and a lesson in privacy. Students take pictures with their mobile devices and post them to social media not knowing that pictures today have data attached to them – latitude, longitude, time of picture, model of the device the picture was taken with…scary amounts of personal data.
  • Permanence: When you post something to the web, it stays on the web for a really long time. I share articles from the court cases concerning Snapchat – not everything disappears! (Snapchat is a photo messaging application that allows users to send photos or videos of themselves to others. Those photos automatically delete after one to 10 seconds – supposedly!)
  • The Fourth Amendment Does Not Apply: We discuss a court case where the judge ruled that someone’s “legitimate expectation of privacy ends when he disseminates posts to friends because friends are free to use information however they want – including sharing it with the government.”
  • Sexting: We examine the career-ending choice of Congressman Anthony Weiner who decided to tweet a picture of…well, you can imagine. For students under the age of 18 in New Jersey, sexting could result in a fine, years in jail, and possibly having to register as a sex offender for the rest of their lives.
  • Terroristic Threats: For our students who are gamers and think nothing of threatening other gamers online, I share the story of now 19-year-old Justin Carter. While playing League of Legends, he threatened to shoot up a kindergarten classroom as a joke…he is now facing up to eight years in jail.
  • The Tyler Clementi Case: As a wrap-up, I share the bullying story from Rutgers of Tyler Clementi and how this digital bullying ended with his suicide.

Why do I begin this harsh presentation with sixth graders? Isn’t that too young? I have one other story I share with the students from out of Nevada, “Attack a Teacher Day.” A group of six 12-year-olds thought it would be funny to make an event on Facebook to attack teachers they did not like. Although meant as a joke, on the same day they picked for their event, a student in Nebraska shot and killed his assistant principal and then himself. You read that right, 12-year-olds thought this would be funny.…

We live in amazing times – our students have great opportunities and will do great things in the future. Our goal should be to make good digital citizens. Let’s talk to students and children every time we have a chance. Every time your students are in the computer lab to do research, every time students share a Google doc, every time students comment on each other’s blogs we should be discussing digital citizenship. What can you do to help?

Matt Shea is chief technology officer for Vernon Township School District.