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How Can Parents and Teachers Help Students Be Digitally Safe? ‘We Should Start Very Early, Even at the Preschool Level, With Some Simple Lessons,’ Says Professor Florence Martin

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The digital landscape for children has drastically changed over the past decade, which means it’s more important than ever that children learn how to be digitally safe from a young age, says NC State College of Education Professor of Learning, Design and Technology Florence Martin

Martin researches the design and integration of digital innovations as well as practices of digital safety among K-12 learners. She noted that years ago, children needed mouse and keyboard skills to be able to access the internet through a desktop computer. With tablets and smartphones common in most households now, children sometimes have internet access as soon as they’re old enough to hold a device. 

“With just touch access, they are able to navigate tablets and smartphones, and this has really changed how early kids are getting access to technology. Even before preschool, they’re getting proficient,” she said. “I would say we should start very early, even at the preschool level, with some simple lessons related to digital safety and, as their age increases, you can give them more specifics.” 

The “Four C’s” of Digital Safety

When teaching children about digital safety, Martin’s research has targeted a few specific areas of concern for elementary school-aged students. 

  • Content-related concerns, such as accessing websites or accounts that are inappropriate.  “We don’t know whether it was intentional or accidental, or a combination of both, but K-12 kids are accessing inappropriate content,” Martin said. 
  • Conduct-related concerns, related to the way children behave towards others through online interactions. This includes issues related to cyberbullying. “This means you’re not demonstrating appropriate behavior towards your peers or even towards strangers. Especially with kids using more digital devices these days, we are seeing more instances of them saying mean things on chat or in messages,” Martin said.  
  • Contact-related concerns, which involves communicating with or sharing inappropriate information with strangers online. “They are contacting or being contacted by a lot of strangers, especially when they play video games or on social media, and kids don’t always realize what they should share and what they should not share,” Martin said. 
  • Contract-related concerns, which includes helping children understand the terms they agree to when they sign up for accounts online. “Kids have access to a lot of websites and apps and they are signing up for accounts, but they don’t realize all the contractual obligations they sometimes get into.”

To help elementary school students understand various aspects of digital safety, Martin has previously hosted a weeklong immersion camp, where each day focused on a different topic to help children learn to be cyber safe. 

While the camp was a one-time event, Martin said there are some lessons she recommends parents and teachers start with when first approaching the topic of digital safety with young students.

“These are all important topics for them because they don’t realize the long-term effects they can face,” she said. 

  • Netiquette: Just as students are taught the right ways to interact with their peers in a classroom, they need to be taught the right way to interact with people online. “Sometimes, kids think that in a classroom they can behave differently, but when they are online, they can say and do whatever they want and get away with it, but that’s not how it works,” Martin said. 
  • Digital Footprint: Elementary-aged students, Martin said, often don’t understand that photos or comments they post online are accessible forever, even after they are deleted. “They don’t realize that the internet can keep track of things and, later on, even a decade later when they’re looking for a job, someone can find things that they said or posted,” she said. “I think having a positive digital footprint is very important, so that’s an important topic to educate them on.” 
  • Cyberbullying: While most education around cyberbullying centers around not bullying others online or learning how to avoid being bullied online, Martin said an additional important lesson is to teach children the right steps to take if they do experience or witness cyberbullying. “If they are in a situation where they know someone else is being cyberbullied, learning how to collect evidence and report it is important,” she said. 
  • Digital Safety: It’s difficult to entirely prevent children from encountering strangers online, so it’s important to teach them how much content is appropriate to share with someone they don’t know or to post publicly. “Restrict how much contact they have with strangers when they are very young, but also teach them what they should share and what they should not share,” she said. “You do not have to tell a stranger where you live or what school you go to, and you don’t want to give them any personal information.”

What Other Steps Can Parents and Teachers Take to Keep Kids Safe Online?

In addition to teaching about digital safety, Martin says there are additional steps adults can take to keep children safe online. 

  • Many schools already use content filters to block access to inappropriate websites as well as firewalls to prevent cyber attacks or malicious files. 
  • For parents, Martin recommends they don’t give a young child administrative access to any device they are allowed to use. Instead, create a secondary account for them on the device that has limited controls and only allows access to the apps they really need. In addition, don’t share device or account passwords with your child until you believe they are old enough to use the internet responsibly.  “Of course, when they are older and better able to make decisions, you can trust them [with this information] but, when they are very young, they do not have to be the administrator of the entire device. That way, they do not have access to really delete things or make changes, and things can be password protected,” Martin said.
  • In an effort to keep students safe, many schools also use monitoring applications on school-owned devices to keep track of students’ browsing history and communication to flag inappropriate online behavior. 

Martin is currently the principal investigator on a nearly $300,000 grant-funded project to examine the use and effectiveness of these monitoring softwares, which were broadly used by schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were engaged in fully remote learning. 

The goal of the project, Martin said, is to look at the variety of different monitoring applications that were used by North Carolina school districts and examine how each application was used and what data was collected. The project team, which includes researchers from the Friday Institute for Education Innovation, will conduct interviews and surveys to understand the monitoring application experience from the perspectives of school leaders, teachers, technology facilitators and directors, counselors and students. 

“As much as it is beneficial to have a monitoring application, if students are monitored 24-7, they don’t have any privacy. There needs to be a balance there, so we are going to study that as well,” Martin said. “Do the benefits outweigh the limitations that come with it? What data was collected and how did it benefit the schools and support the students? That’s what we’re excited about studying.”