Getting Kids to Take Online Safety Seriously
When you ask students to think through their own scenarios about online safety, they’re more likely to look out for themselves and others.
The top-line statistics about online safety for kids are troubling: According to a 2019 study by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, 40 percent of kids in grades 4-8 reported that they connected or chatted online with a stranger. Meanwhile, the Journal of Adolescent Health reports that approximately one in five youth experience unwanted online exposure to sexually explicit material. And the risks just come from strangers: Pew Research Center reports that 59 percent of kids have been bullied or harassed online.
ISTE standards for students don’t quite seem up to the task. While they touch on cyberbullying and data privacy and acknowledge that being a “digital citizen” means learning about the responsibilities and behaviors for interacting in this space, they don’t say a word about access to and sharing of inappropriate and explicit content—including the risk of kids making a naive but devastating misstep themselves.
That’s a big gap. The easy solution would be cut-to-the-chase lectures that treat cyber safety as a standalone topic, but lectures often fail to make meaningful connections with students. In our years of teaching cyber safety to kids, we’ve arrived at what we think is a better approach—one in which cyber safety instruction is woven into subjects such as language arts, social studies, math, PE, and electives like STEAM, health, or theater.
We’ve seen it again and again in our classes: When cyber safety is contextualized and personalized and provides students with an opportunity to create, apply, or synthesize higher-level ideas in their subject-specific areas, the learning is far more profound. Moreover, with a cross-curricular approach, students become more empowered digital citizens who want to share their stories, research the facts, and inform their peers.
Make use of compelling, relevant narratives
Narrative is relevant in most subjects, but we’ve discovered that in the context of ELA, sharing cyber safety narratives with an element of suspense gains students’ attention, gets them thinking critically, and gives them ideas for their own narratives. Start with short, narrative videos such as those from Storybooth, a site that animates real-life stories submitted by 7th-12th graders, including testimonies relevant to cyber safety. BrainPop, which is aimed at elementary teachers and students, also has cyber safety videos.
After watching a video, ask your students to pick a related prompt. For example, if you’ve just watched a video on private and personal information, offer these:
- Explain why it can be risky to share information online.
- What steps would you take to prevent your private information from being shared?
- Create a T-chart of safe and unsafe information to share online.
Then they can write a response to the prompt and then turn and talk to a peer or share their responses in a whole group, e.g., “This reminds me of…” or “I wonder what would happen if…”
Or have your students write real or imagined narratives around topics of cyber safety. Start with story prompts such as, “A friend tells you that they are planning to meet up with someone they met through social media and wants you to come along. How do you respond?”
We have students work collaboratively on different story prompts related to cyber safety, then use a jigsaw approach where each group rotates to a completed story prompt with sticky notes to ask questions, share “a-ha” moments, and give peers feedback.
Storytelling with avatars and comics
Comics can both inspire and educate kids. Consider having your students create virtual avatars and comic strips with a tool like Pixton. They can create representations of themselves, classmates, peers, family members, or teachers who will play a role in the narratives they create (with permission, of course, from the represented people—yet another opportunity to model consideration and consent).
For example, kids could envision a scenario in which a high schooler meets someone they think is a peer online, agrees to meet them in person, realizes the gravity of the situation, and flees, and then depict that entire storyline in a comic strip format. The same thing can be done with scenarios related to sharing photos or a bank account number.
With digital comics, students can change backgrounds to build settings, vary facial expressions and body posture of their avatars, and learn technical skills like camera zoom to edit. Digital comics can launch discussions about other important topics, too, like the importance of nonverbal communication and how to support their peers when warning signs of cyber safety arise.
Practice problem-solving with scenarios
When students act out scenarios, they explore possible solutions to complicated problems with their peers. Pose scenarios and ask cooperative groups to act them out. Here's an example:
A group of classmates asks for your help to create a website about a teacher at your school. They want to include inappropriate pictures, images, and comments about her. What do you do?
With practice and trust, your students will likely want to write their own scenarios. Whether you teach health, theater, or creative writing, having kids write a script for a cyber safety situation can bring new energy into your classroom.
When students research facts about cyber safety issues, they build their critical thinking and media literacy skills and gain a clearer understanding of what cyber safety is and what affects it, both in terms of outside influences and their own behavior.
For example, in a social studies class, ask them to consider this scenario: “Your friend tags you in a picture at the beach on Instagram. Other users have begun to make comments that make you feel uncomfortable and don’t seem appropriate to post online. You’re worried that your mom will see it. What should you do?”
As part of the assignment, have students look at legislation related to cyber safety to understand the legal ramifications of bad (and sometimes illegal) behavior; advise them to add links and resources they’ve discovered. Using an online collaboration board such as Padlet, Jamboard, or with Nearpod or Pear Deck, you can also do “think-pair-share” activities rooted in online research.
Relevant research works in math, too, and the objectivity of numbers provides a nice counterbalance to personal narratives. A good infographic, for example, can prompt questions and robust discussion. Because infographics are data-rich, they can reinforce understanding of statistics and probability and help develop quantitative literacy.
Students can also create surveys using Google Forms and collect data from their peers about a cyber safety topic of their choice—they are often more interested in crunching numbers when working with a data set they’ve created or contributed to and care about. Once students have collected and analyzed their data, they can create a Canva infographic of their own, which can also be used for a “notice and wonder” conversation that they lead.
Cyber safety instruction helps students see the connections between good citizenship overall and digital citizenship. Students need to understand the facts, cause and effect, personal responsibility, and the importance of both etiquette and context. Most of all, they need to understand that the lessons of compassion they learn throughout their school years extend into the digital world. One of the best ways to be compassionate towards others (and themselves!) is to be safe online.