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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Digital Lives of Teens: The Key Word Is Trust

The recent decision by Glendale Unified School District in Southern California to hire a private firm, Geo Listening, that will troll through the digital lives of teenagers has sparked widespread concern and reaction. Schools and parents, increasingly at a loss for how to ensure teens' online safety with the proliferation of social media and bullying, are beginning to outsource the work of monitoring.

In a New York Times article, Phillips Academy Head of School John Palfrey captures the challenge for schools that are considering a move toward this kind of outsourcing:

We wouldn't want to record every conversation they are having in the hallway. The safety and well-being of our students is our top priority, but we also need for them to have the time and space to grow without feeling like we are watching their every move.

However, if schools and parents are not watching, who will?

Reasons to Worry

For kids, digital spaces can quickly descend into a Lord of the Flies type of community, where hurtful comments get hurled. This can be daunting and unsettling for kids, and leave them at a loss as to how best to handle the situation.

There is reason to be concerned, given the recent shooting at Sparks Middle School in Nevada, where a student killed a math teacher and himself, in addition to wounding some students. The student shooter is believed to have been bullied by classmates. It is as yet unclear whether this student encountered bullying in online spaces.

However, earlier this school year, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Polk County, Florida jumped to her death after experiencing piercing incidents of bullying from peers in an online space.

Schools and parents cannot abdicate their responsibility to foster, nurture, create and sustain healthy communities for students. Hiring private firms to be the "comment cops" and take on the work of tracking what kids are doing online will only further segment the relationship between students and adults in schools, and continue to send kids underground in online spaces.

A Stronger Community

The key work to be done is to bring the underground lives of teens above ground and build trust.

School communities need to create partnerships with parents through developing shared language, social media agreements, intervention steps, proactive curricular development and media literacy.

Schools can start from a place of trust, in a way that New Milford High School in New Jersey has managed to do under the leadership of Principal Eric Sheninger. Blogger Robert Dillon shares his impressions of a recent visit to New Milford High School:

My greatest take away from this informal time at New Milford was the deep sense of trust in the building. The principal trusted his administrative team. The staff trusted that the principal was supporting their work. The students trusted the teachers. The teachers trusted the students. The maintenance crew trusted building leadership. Trust. Trust. Trust. It was everywhere to be seen.

Resorting to the use of private firms to do the work of parents and schools is shortsighted and will create a game of digital whack-a-mole for schools and students.

What strategies have you developed to bring "the digital underground" above ground to build trust between students and adults?

The Digital Lives of Teens: Part 2 (Fall 2013)
More about the impact of social media and instant data access on teen life

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