The importance of digital citizenship education in you child's school

Today, a child’s digital footprint begins even before his or her birth. Parents post pregnancy announcements, gender reveals and newborn photos online years before that child is able to understand that his or her digital footprint – the information about a person that exists online as a result of his or her Internet activity – is there forever. 
That’s why an early digital-citizenship education is so important these days, according to technology educators at various New Orleans-area schools. This education involves lessons on Internet safety, privacy and security, self-image and identity, cyberbullying, plagiarism, and one’s digital footprint and reputation. Technology education also must prepare children for the increasingly digital world in which they are being raised, experts said. 
“Our students are growing up in an environment vastly different from their parents’ generation,” says James Huval, director of technology at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie. “Even for me, having been a young teenager using chat rooms on a dial-up modem in the early 90s, my experience compared to children of today having the Internet in the palm of their hands is remarkably different.”
Educators at St. Martin’s use a combination of “home-grown lessons” and resources from the nonprofit Common Sense Media to teach lower school students about digital citizenship, while teaching upper school students how to be responsible both online and offline through class lessons and interactions with classmates, Huval says. Guidelines and rules for defining proper and improper technology usage are outlined in the school handbook, which all families agree to read and abide by, he says. 
Stay safe and be kind
Students at St. Ann Catholic School in Metairie follows Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship toolbox curriculum, says Elizabeth Stiegman, the school’s technology coordinator. In this curriculum, students learn the “social media’s dos and don’ts,” Stiegman says. Those lessons include the difference between private and public information, password security and real-life video examples of cyberbullying, she says. 
Digital citizenship education is important because students have access to smart phones, laptops, tablets and the Internet at such a young age, Stiegman says. “The Internet creates this scary anonymity,” she says. As a result, children, and even adults, are more apt to say things through a computer screen that they would never say face to face, Stiegman says. 
While digital citizenship education is a relatively new concept at Bricolage Academy in New Orleans, these lessons go hand-in-hand with emotional and social learning, especially when it comes to making friends and learning about bullying, says Diana Turner, the school’s technology coach. “We know these issues happen every day in real life, but they also happen online,” she says. 
Students need practice learning how to make friends and how to identify bullying, Turner says. “Digital citizenship is a new idea, but it’s actually just about being a good citizen on- and offline,” she says.
Creating new policies
While teachers often receive digital citizenship resources, the administrators at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans are currently working on a school-wide digital citizenship policy, says Crystal Daspit, the school’s technology, communications and testing coordinator.
The school blocks certain websites on school-issued iPads and Chromebooks, including all social media sites, Daspit says. Whether a teacher agrees to “unlock” a website depends on her lesson plans and varies depending on the age appropriateness of the students, she says. “We want our kids to have an environment where they have some freedom – but not all freedom – while they’re in school,” Daspit says.
Cecilia Wilson, IT coordinator at St. Benilde School in Metairie, says it’s important for students to have an education in digital citizenship because technology today is a part of our culture. Students must learn that, even though they are sitting behind a computer or phone screen and communicating via keyboard, “there’s actually a person on the other side,” Wilson says. 
The Archdiocese of New Orleans and the school work together to use filters and block websites depending on the student’s ages, she says. For example, older students researching volcanoes may have access to YouTube, while younger students are prohibited from accessing the social media and video-sharing website, Wilson says.
Leading the charge
At the Louise S. McGehee School in New Orleans, students are taught technology skills from a young age, says Kristen Dry, the school’s director of communication.  “(Technology) has become such a part of our everyday lives, we want our girls to really know how to use it well and carefully,” she says.
In 2017, McGehee became the first digitally-certified school in Louisiana when it was named a Common Sense Certified School for Digital Citizenship. Starting in the third and fourth grades, students learn online communications skills through relatable methods, says Maribel Castro, the school’s director of technology. For example, students should never say hurtful things to a friend on the playground, so they should do the same online, Castro says. 
In fifth grade, when students are issued school email addresses and are required to bring their own laptops to class, McGehee’s digital citizenship education focuses on privacy, self-image and relationships in a social environment, she says. 
Today, something as seemingly minimal as not receiving any likes on an Instagram post can be devastating to a student’s self-esteem, technology officials said. “It’s no different than being on campus and saying, ‘I don’t have any friends,’” Castro says. “You’re dealing with the same issues but in an environment that is free and loose.”
McGehee teaches its Upper School students to create a responsible digital footprint because babysitting clients and university admission officers will seek them out online, she says. “It’s a matter of establishing the best footprint of who you are,” Castro says. Digital footprints are, after all, forever. 
“It’s a very different world that the children are growing up in,” Stiegman says. “I don’t know that all of them understand the digital footprint they’re leaving behind. Once you post something on the Internet, it’s there forever. There’s no taking it back.” 
Kate Stevens is a journalist and mother of two whose work has appeared in Nola Family, the Times-Picayune, the Advocate and the Charlotte Observer.

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