Friday, April 22, 2011

Understanding Media's Impact

It’s hard to get through the day without hearing a heartbreaking cyberbullying story. As we watch these stories grab the headlines, it’s helpful to keep in mind what John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives,” said recently, “[c]yberbullying is just bullying that happens to be mediated through digital technologies. There's nothing fundamentally different about it” (2011). 

In fact, overall incidences of physical bullying, thankfully, are in decline. According to a new study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, the percentage of children reporting physical bullying in the past year went down from 22 percent to 15 percent. Additionally, cyberbullying happens a third less than traditional bullying. Nevertheless, even one case of bullying, cyber or otherwise, that results in harm to a child is one case too many.

If there is any upside to our awareness of these stories, perhaps it's the reminder that just because our kids seem tech-savvy at increasingly younger ages, doesn’t mean that their brains have caught up with their digital acumen. According to the renowned developmental theorists, like Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, it takes children about twelve years to develop the cognitive structures that enable them to grasp abstract, metaphoric, and symbolic types of information… logical thinking, in other words. Before twelve, it’s pretty much cognitively impossible for children to fully grasp the effects of their actions upon others, online or otherwise. Yet may of us put powerful digital devices in their hands well before they hit their teens and then react in shock when they use them poorly.

Furthermore, even though most children start thinking logically by twelve, and thus show the beginnings of ethical thinking (which requires logical thinking as a prerequisite, btw), new brain science has found that certain parts of the brain are still not fully functional until about age 25. Guess which part of the brain takes the longest to mature? The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that just happens to be largely responsible for impulse control (I know, this seems like a cruel joke on those of us with teens learning to drive cars and to navigate the information superhighway).

So although a teenager might understand, for example, the impact of nasty text message upon its recipient, the part of their brain that warns… “hey, hold on a minute, better not hit send” isn’t fully operational yet. So guess what happens? The message gets sent.  

So, short of taking away mobile phones and computers until well after college graduation, what's a parent to do? Well, according to a recent article in Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning“[e]ducators and parents nationwide are turning to new digital citizenship curricula to help students understand their rights and responsibilities online” (Jackson, 2010).  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concurs. In a recently released clinical report, The Impact of Social Media Use on Children, Adolescents and Families,” the AAP states that the answer to our concerns about cyberbullying and the like, is digital literacy, both for students and their parents.

Our “Cyber Civics” classes at Journey School have been underway for a couple of months now. We’re currently working on Common Sense Media’s  “Connected Culture” unit which addresses the issue of cyberbullying. One of the games we've played, called “You Chart It”, has students use their ethical thinking skills to evaluate situations that can happen in cyberspace. For this game we made two x and y axes on the floor with masking tape, labeling them as seen below…

After listening to stories describing different online scenarios (in one, for example, a boy posts an unflattering close-up of his friend’s face that causes the friend to be made fun of at school), the students were asked to take the point of view of the person who took the action. They had to imagine a point on the y axis that stood for how intentional or unintentional this person’s actions were, and to imagine a point on the x axis that stood for how helpful or hurtful that person’s actions were and then take a place on that spot. 

I’ve played this game a couple times with adults. They almost always think the young “perpetrators'” actions were unintentional (“I’m sure he had no idea what he was doing…”).  Here’s what the kids thought...

It is apparent, at least to me, that these 12-year olds are fully capable of the ethical thinking required to puzzle through the consequences of their actions. So will any of these kids be the ones who, despite understanding the impact of their actions, hit “send”? Maybe. Nobody can make their brains mature any faster than nature intended. However, we can help them exercise the muscles of wise decision-making by discussing and considering these scenarios well before they occur. We are fortunate that, at Journey School, we get to spend a few precious school-time hours practicing these skills.

I wish all kids were so lucky.


Jackson, S. (2010, December 7). Parents’ Reaction to Cyberbullying Underscores the Need for Digital Citizenship Education. Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from

Palfrey, J. (2010, October 1). Cyberbullying and a Student's Suicide. The New York Times. Retrieved April, 18 from

Friday, April 1, 2011

Imagining Digital Footprints in 2021

From: Common Sense Media

Not too long ago I attended a presentation at our local high school given by Glen Warren, a passionate information and digital literacy advocate who’s the V.P. of Government Relations for the California School Library Association (CSLA). He said that students today need to do more than just protect their digital reputations, they need to actually “do positive stuff online” so that their digital footprints speak volumes about their character. 

We already know that future employers will likely go to the Internet to do background checks on these students before entrusting them with jobs. Additionally, colleges and universities are starting to rely on digital interactions when deciding which students get letters of acceptance. For example, I learned about from The Media Psychology Blog. It’s a social networking-like site that lets students post profiles and links about themselves that are viewed by college admissions officers. Based on the idea that a student is “more than a test score” (really?!?), this site provides a good example of how a digital footprint is our new first impression.

That’s why the 6th graders in our Cyber Civics class at Journey School took a proactive approach imagining and designing their own digital footprints; the ones they want the world to see in ten years. Judging by the things they scrawled into their footprint outlines (from Common Sense Media’s “Digital Citizenship” curriculum), it was a class full of future presidents, professional soccer players, artists, scientists, musicians, gamers, fashion stylists and more. Some were going to achieve renown by eating themselves to greatness and others were going to win the Nobel Peace prize, the Heisman trophy, feed the homeless and perform hundreds of pet rescues (frankly, I’m most excited about the Horchata-flavored ice cream). Even if only a fraction of these digital dreams do come true, I think it will be a future we can all look forward to.