Do young people know how to use the Internet? It seems like an absurd question.
Yet, digital technology presents a novel set of social situations that we're all, young and old, still figuring out how to navigate. From oversharing to sexting to cyberbullying, the Web can sometimes be nearly as confusing to the young as it is to those who wouldn't know what to do with a Snapchat if it bit them.
A new initiative called "Think Before You Share" seeks to address that difficulty. A joint project by non-profit media literacy group Mediasmarts, Facebook and the Canadian Federation of Teachers, Think Before You Share aims to both enlighten students as to safe and responsible digital citizenship and also empower them to know how to respond when things go wrong online.
As both a short information kit for teachers and a poster to be placed around schools, the program has definite strengths. Still, for all its good intentions, given the relative newness of online activity, a difficult question lingers: in the face of a novel and quickly changing culture of online behaviour, is educating young people enough?
Though we tend to think youth have a "native" understanding of digital technology, high usage doesn't always go along with clear understanding.
"Our research showed that seven out of the top favourite sites that Canadian kids were using were sites where you share content, information, photos." says Cathy Wing, Co-Executive Director at MediaSmarts. "Kids are interested in controlling personal information, but they tend to respond after the fact. We felt we really had to talk to kids about thinking before they share."
The information kit thus focuses on three areas: what students share themselves; what they do with others' information; and what to do if they feel things have gotten beyond their control. Students are informed, for example, that anything they share could be seen by other people, that you should never share someone else's content if you don't have permission, or that they should ask either peers or an authority figure if something of theirs is posted that would rather not be seen.
Unlike many such programs that often blame individuals (frequently girls) for sharing things, it is refreshing to see equal weight placed on both individual responsibility and a respect for things shared by others.
That information takes the form of a three page handout, freely downloadable from Mediasmarts and Facebook, and a poster that is to be placed around schools. Though one might thinks a poster simply put up on the wall of a classroom is insufficient, the request for a poster actually came from members of the Canadian Teacher's Federation who, impressed with the package, felt a poster would complement the information kit.
Facebook seems to share the view that the poster is meant to enforce new norms. "The value of having it up in the wall," said a company spokesperson "is that I think it still a valuable reminder to have front and centre as they're using computers and pulling out mobile phones and showing pictures while at school."
Facebook see the initiative as part of an ongoing program to maintain the health of their platform. "Our goal is simple," said their spokesperson, "we want to give platforms where they can share what they want with who they want." In order to have that happen, Facebook feels that issues of harassment, bullying, and simple community standards are things that have to enter and remain in the public discourse.
"These are conversations that should be happening not just for people who use FB," said a company spokesperson "but we think they should be happening at home, around the dinner table, in classrooms."
For any such program to be effective, however, it has to move beyond casual conversation. It's a thought echoed by Canadian Teachers' Federation president, Dianne Woloschuk, who feels that Canadian institutions must respond to a significant change in children's lives.
"Kids in school have been part of the digital world ever since they can remember to some extent," says Ms. Woloschuk. "Technology has certainly a big part of their lives and it's very natural for them. It's almost like breathing. It's like the device is an extension of themselves."
As such, it becomes essential to develop a culture of responsibility around digital sharing, and as a national organization in a country in which education is a provincial matter, the Federation is a unique position to spread the message.
"If the poster ends up being something that gets stapled on the wall and that's the extent of it," Ms. Woloschuk says, "Then I would say of what the impact might be, I'm not so sure."
Instead, what Ms. Woloschuk hopes is that teachers who receive the materials from their unions will implement the information to ask students to consider their responsibilities to each other and themselves.
"There's an opportunity here to keep working on empathy and identify with other people," says Ms. Woloschuk "and understanding the impact of your actions on your own life and other people's lives. So those are all really great strengths of this program."
It is certainly a noble goal, and a step in the right direction – one that acknowledges the presence and significance of social media and does not seek to assign blame to the young.
At the same time, it can only be part of a broader strategy. Without putting the basics of good digital citizenship into the curriculum, such programs will face the same problems as all voluntary, informal measures. Poorer schools with harried teachers and more complex needs are less likely to implement these voluntary measures than luckier ones. Meanwhile vulnerable students will continue to be victimized without structural protection.
Nonetheless, the Think Before You Share strategy is a helpful one. After all, it reminds both youth and their guardians that digital technology isn't another world with its own, different set of rules, but part of the very fabric of what it is to live in the 21st century.