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Ethical, social, digital: Shaping the 21st century student

When it comes to using technology wisely and well, Laura Tierney believes this succinct truth: Kids can’t be what they can’t see. They can only be a force for good if someone shows them how. Tierney, a four-time All-American and Duke Athlete of the Decade in field hockey, is seeking to do that. She is founder and CEO of The Social Institute, a Chapel Hill-based organization that helps kids “win the game of social media” and use technology in positive ways.

Tierney knows how to harness the positive power of social media. She has developed social media campaigns for Nike, Under Armour, and more. Now, she works with over 50 schools nationwide, sharing a social media education program that emphasizes positive potential.

“We challenge students to think of social media like the world’s biggest game,” she says. “Billions of people are playing every time they log in every day. We believe that there is a winning positive side to using social media, where you can represent your character, or you can live a healthy lifestyle, you can land internships and jobs. And on the flip side, there’s a very negative losing side where you can tarnish your reputation, you can bring down others, you can follow negative influences in your feed.”

Shared standards should apply to kids and adults alike. “When you have collective standards, you are living into something together as a community,” she says. “You understand that you represent something far greater than yourself. And you want to live into those standards, not just for yourself but for others around you … Everyone is on the same page about what’s okay and what’s not okay.”

Tierney’s game-winning strategies encompass much more than rules. Her focus is positive and aspirational, an approach she learned from working with Duke’s basketball program and Coach K. “He challenges his teams to have that same principle, to live up to high standards rather than just obey rules. We brought that principle to the students and they embraced it.”

Here are some of Tierney’s social media ‘dos’: “Play to your core. That’s all about sharing your core values and your character …Use your microphone for good. It’s a new 21st century life skill to be able to craft a thoughtful post that others see and they are willing to share … Cyber-back others. [That means] having each other’s backs online rather than cyberbullying.”

With digital, citizenship starts at the top

Tierney’s message leveraging the power of positivity and role models is in keeping with a major push from state leaders, who know digital citizenship begins at the top. Last year the state implemented new digital competencies for teachers and administrators, with digital citizenship as a core component. Kathy Parker, School Library Media and Digital Citizenship Consultant at the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI), says, “For our students to be responsible digital citizens, it is vital that their instructors teach and model it in their classrooms, school libraries, and technology programs. Throughout the state, educators are growing themselves as digital citizens by participating in professional development opportunities on digital citizenship components, such as copyright, global education, responsible communication.”  

School districts are working to equip educators to guide students. Marlo Gaddis, Chief Technology Officer for the Wake County Public School System, says of digital citizenship, “This is one of the areas that, within the next year, we are hoping to see a lot more work being done — not just with students [but with] staff. We are really trying to focus more on professional development. Common Sense Media is one of the resources we use pretty heavily. Common Sense Media Education has a credential that teachers can get. Google has a Be Internet Awesome curriculum.”

In addition to using Common Sense Media’s curriculum, teachers are also leveraging lessons from BrainPOP, Parker says. BrainPOP focus areas are digital etiquette, online safety, cyberbullying, social media, copyright, plagiarism, malware, and more. How can educators teach kids to use social media appropriately when they’re too young to have accounts or their school blocks social media? Parker points to Sarah Prouty, a third grade teacher at Kernersville Elementary School, who uses an analog Twitter board.

Tim Hardin, president of the North Carolina School Counselor Association, collaborates with his school’s library coordinator to cover all angles. “She’ll talk about copyright and content — when you publish something online, how it belongs to you and other people can’t just steal it. I’ll go in and talk about the safety aspect and [that] everything we put online is out there,” he says.

Too young for accounts, third graders at Kernersville Elementary learn about social media from a Twitter board. Kathy Parker/NCDPI

Student privacy and the digital footprint

Many people, says Hardin, view cyberbullying as the most pervasive problem kids face as they navigate technology use. He sees a larger problem. “I think the bigger underlying issue is this idea that students don’t always have the foresight to see that what they’re putting online never really goes away,” he says. “There always seems to be a way to pull things back,” through screenshots or other means.

Sharing from experience is effective in reaching students. “I use a lot of personal examples. I’ll pull screenshots of my personal accounts,” Hardin says. He shows students how public his Twitter feed is: “Anybody can pull me up on Twitter.” Hardin has also pulled snippets from high schoolers’ online profiles. Some discover profiles aren’t as private as they thought.

One standard Tierney shares with students is: “Protect your privacy like you’re famous — the same way I can’t find Beyoncé’s cell phone number or email address.” She tells kids, “People want that private information for a reason. They either want to share it or take advantage of you.”

Can what kids post or share come back to haunt them? Sometimes it does, even when there is a presumption of privacy. High-profile incidents — including Harvard acceptances rescinded in 2017 based on offensive memes and messages shared by admitted students in a private Facebook group chat — remind kids that nothing online is private. According to Kaplan Test Prep’s latest survey of college admissions officers, 68 percent say checking applicants’ social media platforms is “fair game.”

But, most don’t play that game: 29 percent of admissions officers say they have visited applicants’ social media sites. This number has declined since 2015, perhaps because students have turned to non-archival social platforms, such as Snapchat, according to Yariv Alpher, executive director of research for Kaplan Test Prep. Still, consequences, when they come, are painful: 9 percent of admissions officers have revoked an offer of admission based on students’ social media activity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Tierney believes leveraging social media for good now can yield professional dividends later. “Seven in 10 employers will now check social media, and most of those employers actually want to find you online,” she says. “That’s the future and where we’re going. People want to see your character based on what you post. So it also has a huge impact on the success that [kids] have down the road.”

Cyberbullying prevention and reporting

How common is cyberbullying? Data from the Cyberbullying Research Center indicate over a third of kids ages 12 to 17 have ever been cyberbullied; 12 percent have cyberbullied others. “The goal is prevention,” says Hardin. School counselors talk, throughout the school year, about digital citizenship, kindness, and respect from kindergarten through twelfth grade, Hardin says.

“Cyberbullying is absolutely awful,” says Amy Tart, a fifth-grade English language arts teacher at Union Intermediate School in Clinton, NC. “Kids are crying, ‘Look at this.’ … I realized I had to get my kids on board.” Pushing the importance of kindness occurs in myriad ways, online and off, but starts with empathy and understanding — and teaching kids to stick up for one another.

“We’ll talk about it and how it makes them feel,” says Tart. Her students read the book Wonder about a child with Treacher Collins syndrome, an incurable condition that causes facial deformities. One student in Tart’s class, Jocelyn, had Treacher Collins; she eventually found her voice and said, “‘This is what I have.’ It really created this atmosphere of [not just] anti-bullying but also sticking up for others,” says Tart, who later witnessed one of her students defending Jocelyn.

When cyberbullying and bullying occur, “most districts have pretty good procedures and protocol in place that respond effectively,” says Hardin. “Many districts are going the way of anonymous apps or anonymous reporting techniques for cyberbullying and bullying issues.” If they don’t use a paid app, some districts rely on simple tools like Google Forms so students can report anonymously, Hardin says.

Can a steady infusion of goodness and positivity crowd out all that negativity? Tierney’s message says it will, that kids can be what they can see. “If schools can take a proactive step of [putting] positive examples and positive role models and positive standards in front of the kids, that’s what they can be because they’re seeing it every day,” she says.

Kristen Blair

Kristen Blair is a communications consultant and Chapel Hill-based education writer. She serves as the communications director for the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools.