September 4, 2013

Maine Voices: Ethical considerations must be part of education in digital citizenship

An incident involving Nazi imagery and Greely athletes raises far-reaching issues about social media.

By ALISHA GOLDBLATT Special to the Press Herald

PORTLAND - Coming of age is hard enough, and I feel grateful that my adolescence occurred before the age of the Internet.

Adolescents have different ways of dealing with the pressures and pain of growing up, and writing was my coping mechanism. I poured my self into hundreds of letters, poems and journal entries that revealed many intimate details. Had social media been available to me then, I cringe to imagine what I would have posted.

Lucky for me, most of the written evidence of my misdirected feelings is long gone, relegated to a landfill somewhere.

Students today have the luxury and the responsibility of growing up with the opportunity to reveal themselves with every keystroke. Because they have never known anything different, it's easy to assume that they understand the implications of that behavior.

Most schools (and some parents) talk to young people about digital citizenship, but what I'm not sure they have thought about, and I know we haven't explicitly taught, are the ethical considerations behind careful use of social media. They learn the "rules" but not the scaffolding behind them.

I started thinking about this after an incident in my school district last year, in which boundaries were crossed, offensive material was made public and the entire community suffered. It actually became international news when a group of girls posted a photograph on Facebook.

The Portland Press Herald reported Feb. 7 that the image revealed two members of the Greely High School girls' basketball team, wearing team uniforms, smiling and giving Nazi salutes, while a third player held her hands in peace signs. Other reports referred to tweets, also sent by the players, containing inflammatory references to Jews and to the Holocaust.

The digital age has suddenly made this event vastly different from the many comments made a thousand times a day in the private sphere, and all the banter, often horrifying, among friends.

Biased language is never acceptable, but in this case it was writ large on an international screen, and the entire community's reputation was at stake.

Were we failing the students, not educating them about hate speech or about the Holocaust? Was there an underlying current of anti-Semitism in the district?

As a Jewish teacher, I felt obligated to speak out in defense of the school system. Our curriculum includes the history of Nazism, and I know that plenty of anti-bullying, anti-bias messages are brought daily into the classrooms by teachers.

The incident calls into question what exactly we are teaching the students about Internet privacy, and how we can do this in a way that is not simply rules-based, but ethically motivated. How can we get our students to see that violating common decency on the Web is a slippery slope?

It's no longer the locker-room conversations or the gossip among friends. It's part of a larger fabric that might even determine the kind of society we create for ourselves.

Many schools instruct students in digital citizenship, but it's not enough just to teach adolescents to be digitally savvy. Sometimes in education we throw knowledge to the kids without contextualizing it.

We often teach grammar that way: "Here, learn it, it's good for you, good medicine." But we could take a step further and explain the larger structure at work: that the grammar of a particular language is part of a social contract of sorts, an agreed-upon way of communicating rationally and meaningfully with another person.

Learning to be digitally thoughtful should be framed in a similar, larger context. By giving up all expectations of privacy, we are agreeing to a more ethically inferior version of our society than we might want; we are agreeing to give up certain expectations of trust and decision-making that make us who we are as human beings.

As educators, we can explain that the public sphere of the Internet threatens the sense that we need to have boundaries.

Those basketball players had no intention of sparking an international debate. Their conduct was already heinous, but this was amplified by its public nature. If they understood the true social impact of their digital footprint, perhaps they would have been less careless.

Snapchat (an app that allows users to exchange photos), postings and tweets are beloved by adolescents in part because these expressions are part of the act of self-reinvention. As teachers, we are obligated to allow this constant evolution of self and to encourage it.

But we also have an obligation to teach our students to live in society as responsible citizens. That's what being connected is actually about.

 

Alisha Goldblatt is a resident of Portland and a middle school English teacher.

 

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