In our efforts to adjust to the new normal brought about by COVID-19, our day-to-day interactions have become almost entirely digital. There are Zoom calls in place of meetings and Flipgrid videos and Canvas forums in place of classroom discussions. As we spend more and more time online, it’s critical to know how to stay safe, connected, and positive.
At #ICANHELP, our mission is to empower students and support educators in promoting digital safety and online positivity. Our organization was founded in 2013 when a student created a harmful page to impersonate a teacher on Facebook. The account accumulated over a thousand followers before it was removed two weeks later. A year after that, the same page reappeared on Instagram—only this time, students were equipped with the tools and knowledge to stop the bullying early. They got the page taken down in less than an hour.
Since its founding, #ICANHELP has worked with students to take down over 800 social media pages dealing with harassment, impersonation, bullying, and other cyber issues. We strive not just to protect students but to empower them with a commonsense approach to social media.
Let’s explore how you can connect with students at your school and empower them to stay safe and be responsible, respectful digital citizens.
Closing the Distance With Virtual Advising
With the onset of the pandemic, distance learning and hybrid learning quickly became the norm, forcing students and educators to transition to a complex new learning environment. It’s important to let students know you’re there for them during this challenging and often lonely time. Here are a few ways to be a pillar of support for your students.
First, take the initiative to extend a helping hand. Encourage students to reach out to you whenever they need support or advice. Make yourself available for them to contact you with any questions or concerns about homework, projects, or the virtual classroom platform. Take it a step further by sending an email to students describing your availability and willingness to help. Include a link to your Zoom meeting room in your message; make sure that you’re familiar with Zoom’s various features (or any other program that the school is using for the virtual classroom, such as Flipgrid) so that you can provide virtual support to students who need it.
You can also connect students to other useful resources, such as online tutoring. If any of your students struggle with their coursework, let them know whom they can contact for academic guidance. In fact, social media is a great tool you can use to get in touch with alumni who can tutor your students. Make a post describing your students’ needs. (Many students have formed community pages or groups for alumni on social media sites—be sure to take advantage of these.) Alternatively, if you know a former student who excelled in a particular subject, message them directly. Remember, there’s always someone willing to help! Some of these former students may even be hanging on to old textbooks or notes from their classes.
Navigating Social Media Safely and Securely
Social media is an excellent tool for maintaining a sense of community at your school, especially when you’re unable to meet in person. As we protect our physical safety by adhering to social distancing guidelines, we must practice good judgment and protect our digital security. The following tips apply to teenagers and adults alike when navigating the digital world.
- Guard your personal information. This includes full names, passwords, phone numbers, addresses, credit card numbers, and school names (abbreviations of school names are an exception). Avoid putting this information on your profile or sharing it via text or private message.
- Create a strong password. Choosing the right password isn’t an easy task. You need to strike the right balance between a complicated password and one that’s easy to remember. One trick is to think of a simple sentence (“I went to France when I was thirteen”), abbreviate it by taking the first letter of every word (“IwtFwIwt”), then add numbers and symbols to the abbreviation to complicate it further (“Iw2FwIw13#”). Remember not to use the same password for multiple sites.
- Use two-factor authentication whenever possible. Once you’ve set this up, you’ll receive a text with a code every time someone tries to log into your account. This extra layer of protection helps ensure that you’re the only one who has access to it.
- Control your visibility. Some social media sites, such as Instagram, supply users with the option to make their accounts private. This means that only the people who follow that user are allowed to view that person’s posts. The user can also choose who follows their account in the first place. Making your account private may result in a smaller follower count, but the good news is that your posts will only be visible to people you trust.
- Be cautious about sharing your whereabouts. Check your privacy, security, and GPS settings on your phone and social media accounts. Make sure you’re only allowing trusted friends and family members to view your location.
- Watch what you post. Often, colleges and employers will check potential students’ or employees’ social media accounts to see whether their online behavior reflects the image they put forward in interviews and applications. Whether your students are applying to colleges or searching for jobs, make sure they’re aware of this fact. Inappropriate or offensive online behavior may result in a rescinded job or admission offer.
Empowering Students to be Digital First Responders
In addition to promoting digital safety, we also train students to become “digital first responders.” A digital first responder has the knowledge, courage, and passion for identifying harmful social media incidents and responding appropriately—leading by example to inspire their peers. So how can you, as an educator, empower your students to become digital first responders? You can start by instilling in them the following principles.
First, know what distinguishes a funny post from a rude or cruel one. There’s a difference between jokes made among friends and remarks made with cruel intent. With the former, you feel comfortable laughing along. But if a person’s words make someone feel hurt or upset, this is a sign that the joke has gone too far.
To discern whether an incident counts as cyberbullying, ask yourself one simple question: If someone made that comment to you or a loved one in real life, how would you feel? If it doesn’t feel right, it most likely isn’t. Additionally, pay attention to how the person targeted by the comment reacts—or whether they respond at all.
Second, know how to respond to digital negativity. When you notice someone being bullied or teased in real life, how do you handle the situation? You’ll most likely step in to defend the victim, make sure everyone is safe, and report the incident to a school administrator. You might also check to see if the targeted person needs any additional support from a counselor. The same is true for digital interactions. If you see someone targeted online, check in with them via text or direct message (DM) to make sure they’re OK, and respond to the bully directly by defending the target and asking the bully to stop.
If a student reports a negative comment or post to you, make sure to have a conversation with the student who made that content. Explain to them why the post is harmful to those involved. If the harassment continues, you may need to speak to the bully’s parents.
Digital Citizenship in Action
Now that you’re familiar with how to respond to online negativity, let’s explore the different forms it can take.
The first scenario we’ll examine is perhaps one of the most common: receiving rude and offensive comments on a post. Chances are, if you’re active on social media, you’ve seen them or been the recipient of one. Most comments that people share are short and superficial, but their impact often travels much deeper. There are multiple ways to deal with this form of cyberbullying effectively.
Whether a student is the target of a mean-spirited comment or is friends with the target, they can report the comment and the author’s page. They should encourage their other friends to do so as well. The more people who report the content, the faster it can get taken down. Additionally, if a student wishes to take a more direct approach, they can privately message the perpetrator or reply to the comment, respectfully and firmly requesting that they stop. If the perpetrator refuses, it’s a good idea to block them to prevent any further abuse.
In the next scenario, a student receives a message goading them to injure or kill themselves. Suicide among teens is a serious and disturbingly prevalent issue—it’s the second leading cause of death for those aged 10–24. Some people will write off these messages as a joke, but it’s critical that perpetrators understand their words’ full weight and impact. Privately message the commenter, informing them of the seriousness of the situation. In this situation, it’s best to reach out to the person whom the bully targeted as well. Call or send them a message to check up on them and ask if they need support from a counselor. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7, whether someone is considering suicide or is concerned about a friend. This lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. If a student prefers to text, they can connect with a crisis counselor by texting HOME to 741741. Your students should be familiar with these numbers in case their friends, family members, peers—or they themselves—need support in the future.
For more information on digital safety and responsibility, sign up for #ICANHELP’s free one-hour online course, “Family Online Safety: A Commonsense Approach to Kids and Tech.” This course is designed for adults who want to empower students to delete online negativity and create safer, more inclusive spaces. You’ll learn about social media trends, safety challenges and best practices, and strategies to connect with students about issues like cyberbullying and privacy.
Visit www.icanhelpdeletenegativity.org to learn more about how you can support your students in becoming responsible digital citizens.
Marisa McAdams is a public relations intern at #ICANHELP.