Are you sending your students out to play with predators?

Students working online doing research.

Students working online doing research.

The Internet is one scary and terrifying place.  The superhighway of information can lead us to great finds, but it can also lead us to places that could possibly destroy us.

Recently, a blog I followed disappeared.  It had been awhile since I had read it, but I noticed it had stopped appearing in my RSS feed.  I emailed the site’s author.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

He replied with, “You will read some incredibly nasty stuff about me on WP.  I hope you won’t judge me. It has been taken out of context, so I have retreated with my wife and kids. My family comes before my blog.”   He did not deny any accusations, nor did he fill me in on what happened.  So I left it at that.

At first I was a bit sad.  I enjoyed the writing on the blog in question.  I enjoyed the community of writers that congregated in the comments section.   I admired the “in your face” sassiness of the topics posted because I could never be so bold. It is not my style, and it’s not the flavor I want for my own blog.

I also liked that the author curated other places on WordPress where tough issues could be discussed and examined.  One blog provided a place for those dealing with mental illness, abuse, or personal hardship, to share personal stories.  These writers delved into their individual problems and how they overcame their adversity.  The other blog was an opposing viewpoints discussion.  Each week two to four writers centered in on a controversial issue, one week even focused on the terror that is Internet bullying.

At the same time though, there was an ominous cloud surrounding his blog indicating a storm was on its way.  When things seemed to become too exclusive on his site, when the posts seemed to focus more on how cool his other blogger friends were and less about great story telling,  I stopped reading his blog.

Curious, this week I searched the internet to see what had become of this blogger.  I discovered that the curator and author had a behind the scenes life that didn’t jive with his on-screen persona.

The author I had seen was a brilliant and supportive writer who was on a crusade to make the blogosphere a safe and kind place for expression.  But to others, he was not such a savior.  He started inappropriate email relationships with writers he was grooming for his blogs. He preyed upon the abused under the guise that he wanted to help others who were facing issues of mental illness or victimization.  When he harassed the wrong person, he was outed for his abuse.

Why would I mention this here on an expat teacher blog?

Students interacting online to produce a project.

Students interacting online to produce a project.

I worry; could my own students get sucked in by an articulate predator?  Would they know what to do in the face of online sexual harassment from strangers?

Our digital world leads us away from that quintessential pillar of parental advice:  Don’t talk to strangers.  Yet social networks, blogging sites, and online gaming communities thrive on talking to strangers.  In the real world children are fearful of stalkers and creeps, but in the online world they are begging for followers.

I send my students out on the Internet every day to gather information.   I want to begin to develop more ways for my students to have authentic writing experiences.  One of those ways is to share their writing and ideas with others around the world via blogs.  But how can I send my students out there if I don’t teach these kids to have the street smarts, to give them the life experiences, that will help them to discern what is ok to share on the internet and what is not.

The Internet is full of people we don’t know and will never meet.  These people can say things that are true or untrue.  They can create virtual friendships with you or make your life a living hell.  And when we post about our lives out there for others to see, we can be praised for our triumphs or virtually stoned for our viewpoints.

Realizing that a writer I admired was really an internet predator, was a wake up call for me.  It was a reminder that I can’t just hand out a research assignment and send kids out willy-nilly to discover the world through the screen of their laptop.

I’m a responsible teacher in that I do set limits for my students while they are on the web.  I curate spaces for them so that they look at the sites I want them too.   This saves time in the research process, but it also protects them from running into inappropriate websites.  We are not always going to be there to filter the internet for them however.

How can we help our students survive in this online world with no limits?

  • Teach students and staff about the dangers of sharing on the Internet.  Schools need to educate students about their digital footprint and cyberbullying.
  • Teach students the skills of analyzing sources. Instruct them on where to look for good sources, and how to tell if a source is valid.
  • Teach them to play nice on the Internet playground.  Teach them to spot a troll, but not become one.
  • Teach them not only to be good public speakers, but good online writers.  Teach them how to discuss their opposing opinions in a constructive manner without starting a flame war.
  • Teach our students that there are certain things that should never be written or said to them.  When lines are crossed, when they begin to feel uncomfortable, take a screenshot and talk to an adult they trust.

The Internet is a superhighway of information.  It can be an amazing resource of knowledge for our kids and  it can be an amazing platform for them to share their ideas. It can also be a sinkhole that could swallow them.  It is our responsibility as teachers and parents to walk alongside our kids in the online world, in the hopes that someday they will be able to tread safely out there on their own.

Here are some further resources on this topic:

 A Guidebook to Social Media in the Classroom-Edutopia – Why it’s important to teach students how to use Social Media in the Classroom.

A Must-Have Internet Safety Cheat Sheet-Edudemic-A step-by-step info graphic for kids and parents on how to secure their online spaces.

A Teacher’s Guide to Keeping Students Safe Online-Edudemic  A guide for teachers to address “the digital birds and the bees.”

Cyberbullying-National Crime Prevention Council -What is Cyberbullying and how students can protect themselves from it.

The Empowerment of Social Media-AASA – How we can use the internet to connect and empower our students across the globe.

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3 replies

  1. You bring up some very troubling issues. The internet is as dangerous as it is wonderful. As we’ve both learned from the blogger you wrote about, things are not always what they seem. When writing humor blogs, I’ll sometimes drop in phrases like “recent studies show” and “statistics indicate” and I never believe that someone might read these and take me seriously.

    • And I think that is where it gets tricky for kids. They read something and take it literally, even though you may not have linked any studies or evidence (which would indicate you are making a joke). We need to do more with our students to analyze posts, articles, sites.

      • I will also occasionally write about my luxuriant flowing locks and Fabio good looks. Considering my profile pic, I’d hope most people would detect my attempts at sarcasm.

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