digital demeanor…

with the regular and on-going controversies of adolescents involved in inappropriate on-line communications continuing to surface (the most recent one involving a “tweet” from a student attending a high school in minnesota)…

the issue of digital demeanor…is worth mentioning…

so to are the harms that can result from “behaving badly in electronic spaces”…spaces that “seem private” or “distant from the real world”…but are, in fact–real in their consequences

since we don’t know enough about “the recent minnesota high school case” to judge it appropriately, let me give you  an example about what i mean by digital demeanor...from an experience in my classroom…to illustrate how things can go horribly wrong…

[note: while digital demeanor can include words and images transmitted by way of desk-top and lap-top computers, phones and other digital devicies…this blog post primarily focuses on “cell-phone issues and demeanor” because the use of cell-phones is prevalent among my students]

classroom case files: nearly eight years ago, in my first year of teaching…one male student sent another male student a text message that included images of brokeback mountain…with harassing statements that included the sender calling the other student “gay” and a “f**” and other inappropriate comments that the sender thought “were funny”…the incident came to light (in-class) because of a verbal altercation that happened as a result of that message…the sender, of course, received consequences for his actions–from me and the school administration…in this case, the consequences were only “school-based”…but, had it gone differently…it could’ve easily reached the level where criminal charges were filed by the victim…

stuff like this is serious and far from funny…and unfortunately…stuff like this still happens regularly…

specifically, these virtual spaces allow people to post words or images that may harm or harass another person…or come back on the person who posted the word or image, if they did so impulsively, without thinking, or without “the proper training”…it should come as no surprise then, that a lot of these cases involve teenagers who text, tweet, or post something in a public/on-line venue of some kind–in other words, they involve cases of people whose brains are not fully developed…

these posts and images, as you know, are sent out into the world by way of mobile digital devices (most often, by way of cell-phones)…devices that have been provided to adolescents by adults (parents) in their lives…because, ultimately, it is socially acceptable to do so…

so, let’s review…

we give teenagers…people whose brains are still developing (specifically, the impulse control and decision-making parts) a tool of unbelievable and unprecedented power when we give them a hand-held digital device…a tool that allows them the unsupervised and unrestricted ability (often times)–to transmit/receive unformed, uninformed, irrational, immature, reckless and impulsive messages between them and the world at large…

so, should we be surprised when a teen makes a mistake here?!  it is like handing them the keys to a 2014 ford mustang sports car…a la ‘fast and furious’…(without driver’s education, a permit, and a license) and saying, ‘have fun!’…

let me be clear…i am not making excuses for teens here…absolutely not–digital demeanor is, clearly, a major social problem–especially for adolescents

at the same time, it is not just a concern for adolescents but for adults as well…i mean, i’ve had to exercise self-discipline in my own use of this kind of power…at times, i’ve made mistakes…and hit “send” on an email or a text that was reactive or aggressive–the kind of messages i wish i could have back, you know…

so, i guess, what i’m asking is…where is the line?  are we setting the boundaries that we need to set for our young people?  are we holding them accountable when they violate those boundaries? are we teaching them to make good choices?  are we teaching them to be responsible with this kind of power?  importantly, while a significant amount of parents need to “tighten-up” their house rules and monitoring of their teen’s digital use…this is not a rant against parents or a “blame the parents” blog post…believe me, i can feel for parents who have done the right thing, who have set limits and boundaries for their kids–and to their horror, their kids “still messed it up”–teens make their own choices, after all…and have to accept responsiblity for those choices…but, what can we do?  how can we do the “digital thing” better?  how can we improve our digital demeanor?

finding answers to these questions may be difficult, but a good starting point is with nationally known, parent/child educator, dr. david walsh…

dr. walsh travels around the country and talks about ‘the teenage brain’, boundaries, and digital responsibility (the lessons he shares are extremely valuable and can be taken from both his books and his “face-to-face” presentations)…from his research, he has identified three pillars of digital health (walsh, 2014):

  1. Digital participation: Young people who participate meaningfully in their digital lives learn that technology isn’t just for entertainment; it is also a tool for learning, networking and engagement.
  2. Digital citizenship: We like to think of digital citizenship as the habit of mind that guides the way we treat one another online.
  3. Digital discipline: Digital discipline is the set of skills, behaviors and practices that enable us to power down and unplug when we need to.

of these, digital demeanor falls most certainly in the category of digital citizenship…or, what i would call the ‘moral category’…the right way and wrong way to behave and treat one another online…the guidelines and boundaries that parents, teachers, and other meaningful adults can set for young people in our society…

a good general rule that applies to this situation is one that we all learned in kindergarten–if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all…

because just like kids who inappropriately over-share and blurt (verbally) in homes, schools and other settings all over the world…they also, inappropriately over-share and blurt online–and i believe we can curtail that type of behavior–i believe we can herd dem cats on the digital frontier, as well…

personally, given the fact that these digital devices are such “life and learning disruptors” for adolescents…especially, phones (i see it regularly as a high school teacher)…i cringe at the thought of my children having and using cell-phones some day…so, here are some things that i promise to do as a father (if phones and phone usage are still a major social issue at the time my children start asking for one)…to establish ‘phone guidelines’ in our house (this is what my top 10 would look like)…

  1. i will make it known in our family that it is privilege to have your own cell-phone (not a right…and point out, that a cell-phone is a luxury item)
  2. i will make it known in our family that we will make decisions about phones together (who gets one, when they get it and what kind they get)
  3. i will delay getting our children cell-phones for as long as possible (i will be stubborn about it, regardless about what “their friends are doing”)
  4. for their first phone…i will get them one in “the ugly, un-cool, flip-phone” category with limited features–an 80’s cell-phone would be ideal (no internet access, no camera, etc…just the ‘bare bones’)
  5. once they demonstrate the ability to use the phone in #4 responsibly (for at least two years)…they may earn a phone with more power/features
  6. with each level of “increased power and features” i will give them “increased guidelines” (about how to use those tools responsibly)
  7. i will let them know that they will pay for their own phone and phone plans…whether by chores or own employment
  8. i will establish house rules for “shut-off” times…where they can’t be on their phones and/or have their phones in their rooms after certain times at night (see dr. walsh’s digital discipline)
  9. i will limit my own usage of technology around my wife and family (especially at the dinner table)
  10. i will pray that this plan works and that they use their phones like they’ve been taught:)

bonus: i will add any additional rules headquarters (my wife) tells me to;)

i’ll let you know (in 12+ years) if this works for us…

recommended readings: dr. dave’s cyberhood: making media choices that create a healthy electronic environment for your kids, dr. david walsh (2001); why do they act that way?: a survival guide to the adolescent brain for you and your teen , dr. david walsh (2004); no-why kids (of all ages) need to hear it and ways parents can say it, dr. david walsh (2007); girls on the edge: the four factors driving the new crisis for girls–sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions, environmental toxins, dr. leonard sax (2010)

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