From the Editor: Schools, scouts address digital use and safety

By HEATHER WRIGHT — In our May print edition, I referred to smartphones as “time-sucking labyrinths” and discussed how tech companies strive to keep us on our digital devices. As a direct result of my research for that article, I’ve set my phone to grayscale. Without a carnival-colored screen and red alerts, my phone has a weaker tractor beam, and my eyes can more easily escape its pull.

I also learned that 50 percent of U.S. teens reported feeling addicted to their mobile devices, according a 2016 study by Common Sense Media. Considering that even infants are now given smartphones and tablets to keep them busy, helping children safely navigate this brave new digital world should be a concern of everyone who parents or works with children.

How are Hyattsville schools responding to this challenge? St. Jerome Academy (SJA), where my two children attend, has taken a low-tech approach. Students don’t have access to computers during the day beyond Scantron testing. They are not allowed to bring cell phones to school, or else they must get parent permission to keep them in the office. Vice Principal Michelle Trudeau explained, “The reasons are manifold, but the goal is to create and support authentic and respectful peer culture, to focus attention on the community, and to nurture a present mindfulness.”

Most schools in Hyattsville are decidedly higher-tech, with students using computers and other technology — including smart phones — during school hours. The Prince George’s County Public School (PGCPS) student code of conduct notes that school administrators can determine when students can use portable electronic devices (PEDs) during the school day and notes, “When students do not have permission to use PEDs, the devices must be turned off and be stored in the student’s pocket, backpack, purse, locker or vehicle.” The code of conduct discourages using social media on school equipment and accessing social media while in school, on school property or while attending school sponsored events.

Neither the PGCPS communication team nor Hyattsville public school administrators responded to requests for comments on the topic of online safety.  However, Nicholas Orem Middle School’s website has a link to “15 Dangerous Apps That All Parents Should Know.” In addition to describing relevant apps, this document includes a social media checklist and online resources for parents.

Parents on Hyattsville listservs reported individual teacher efforts within public schools to support students interacting in the digital world, especially by technology teachers. I have no doubt that many teachers and administrators talk to their students about the dangers of social media, for example, and address online bullying and the permanent nature of anything they post online. What I still don’t know, however, is if there are any formal programs or curriculum available at area public schools.

Frank Mills, upper school principal at Chelsea School, a private school for students grades five-12 with language-based learning disabilities and attention deficits, said that the middle school took a two-week break from PEDs last school year. “We paired this with an initiative to get students to sit at lunch with a student who they normally would not. We gave them ice-breaker questions to ask and encouraged them to socialize,” he explained.

Mills added, “We did this because we noticed that more and more, students were not socializing with each other. During and after the two-week break, we discussed the impact that technology has on our lives and how it can isolate us from others.”

The most formalized area programs I found that address digital access and safety were from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and the Girl Scouts. The BSA has teamed up with content expert NetSmartz, part of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to create the Cyber Chip program. The program’s requirements for grades 6-8 include, for example, writing and signing a personalized contract with a guardian for computer and mobile device use, watching several videos “to see how friends can help each other to stay safe online,” and teaching internet safety rules, behavior and “netiquette” to their troop or another patrol.

Girl Scouts can earn a Netiquette badge, which focuses on “how to make positive choices in the online world.” Additionally, according Adina Brosnan-McGee, leader of Troop 6899 in Hyattsville, their Journeys program has a unit focused on cyber relationships. When she lead this unit, Brosnan-McGee had a special agent from the Department of Homeland Security speak to her troop.

Brosnan-McGee said that she received great feedback from parents on the unit and saw significant changes in girls’ online behavior. “Just insisting each girl turn off their location information and and make their social media profiles private was huge,” she said, adding that she hopes area schools would take a page from the scouts on this subject.

Many of us grownups are fairly clueless about the digital world we’re supposed to help children navigate. I, for one, will take as many pages and maps from whatever sources I can.

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