Staying Safe in a Wired World
How Ophea’s New Internet Safety Resource is Helping Kids Navigate Technology
If you’ve ever watched a five or six year old manipulate a mouse or scroll, with surprising ease, through the menu of their parent’s iPhone, you’ll know it’s true: today’s kids take to technology like they were born for it. In a way, they were. Anyone who’s come into this world in the past decade has scarcely known a time when Googling, emailing and texting weren’t the norm.
But while digital communication can enrich our lives, it also carries risks, especially for children who are still learning to navigate the “real world” safely. These risks include cyberbullying, the disclosure and misuse of personal information, the threat of online sexual predators and the lure of online gaming and excessive screen time, to name a few.
As children begin using the Internet at increasingly younger ages, what will ultimately determine the risk level of their online experiences will be the quality of support they receive—not only from their parents, but from their teachers, and from their communities as a whole. And it’s for exactly this reason that Ophea, in partnership with a team of experts concerned with Internet safety for kids, has launched Connect[ED] www.reallifeonline.ca —a resource that will help get everyone on board to teach students in Grades 4–6 the skills and strategies they’ll need to stay safe in an ever-changing world of technology.
How Connect[ED] came to be...
The Ontario Ministry of Education has long been committed to teaching students safe practices—something which is reflected in the Health and Physical Education and Language curriculum’s focus on helping kids to develop and apply critical thinking and decision-making skills, both in “real life” and online. To support educators in teaching the curriculum as it relates to Internet safety, in 2006, Ophea worked in partnership with the Ministry and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to develop the “CyberCops” resources (Mirror Image and Air Dogs)—both of which address Internet safety for students in Grades 7 and 8.
Based on the evaluations of these resources, however, it became clear that children were gaining access to the Internet, and therefore needed support, at a much younger age. Ophea put together a team of partners with diverse expertise in Internet safety. This team included representatives from the Ontario Ministry of Education, the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (University of Toronto), the Legal Studies program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Kids Help Phone, TVO Kids and the OPP. And, following a collaborative process that involved a needs assessment, concept testing, resource development and field testing, Connect[ED]—a resource available in English and French, tailored specifically to the needs of students in Grades 4, 5 and 6—was born.
Why do we need Connect[ED] now?
Not only are students going online at a younger age than ever before, they’re also using a wider range of technologies. A 2005 study conducted by the Media Awareness Network indicated that 94% of Canadian youth have access to the Internet at home. And while most go online primarily to play games and do homework, 28% of Grade 4 students and 43% of Grade 5 students also use instant messaging. Meanwhile 15% and 23% respectively visit chat rooms. In addition, 44% of students who own cell phones have access to the Internet through them.
Parents do their best to provide supervision but, the truth is, they can’t always be watching. “These students are at an age where they’re developing the behaviour patterns they’re going to carry forward,” comments Andrea Slane, Associate Professor in the Legal Studies Program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and part of the resource development team. In essence, it’s a vital time for equipping kids with the skills they’ll need to make decisions and problem solve, both today and into adulthood.
But although many of the critical thinking skills students will learn apply equally to “real life,” part of the challenge lies in helping them understand how the online world is different. For example, how can students interact with one another effectively and safely when they’re conversing entirely through text, without the aid of social cues? Do they understand the implications of posting information online where others can gain access to it and use it in ways they might not have intended? And where can they turn when things do get out of hand online?
“One of the things parents and teachers need to understand is that kids are going to run into trouble on the Internet,” says Faye Mishna, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Research at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. This trouble may include dangerous situations, such as making contact with a sexual predator, but more commonly consists of online harassment and bullying by peers (known as cyberbullying); access to inappropriate photos and videos; and excessive time spent surfing the Internet, on social networking sites and playing video games.
“Parents and teachers also need to understand that kids might not always disclose these problems,” adds Mishna. “It’s important not to make it all or nothing; to keep the lines of communication open”—something which Connect[ED] encourages by taking a harm reduction approach. In other words, rather than punishing students for mistakes they might already have made online, it teaches them subsequent steps to take to resolve issues, and encourages them to seek help from a trusted adult such as a parent or teacher.
How Connect[ED] can set educators at ease...
Of course, in order to help students manage the pitfalls of the online world, educators must have a certain comfort level with technology. But, rest assured, there’s no need to be a computer whiz to use the resource with students, or to reinforce its messages.
“I think there’s a generational shift going on,” comments Slane. “Those of us who are of an older generation didn’t grow up with computers, but as the years go on, teachers and parents are more likely to be already ensconced in that world. As we’re navigating that change, we need to be constantly working toward staying informed.”
With this in mind, Connect[ED] places a strong focus on supporting educators and parents as they build their knowledge of the online world.
What educators can expect from Connect[ED]...
The web-based Connect[ED] resource, www.reallifeonline.ca (which is also available as a DVD) covers a range of Internet safety topics relevant to students in a way that is accessible to them, as well as to their teachers. These topics include basic netiquette skills in Grade 4, making difficult online decisions in Grade 5 and some serious issues like risqué webcam photos, online gaming addictions and cyberbullying in Grade 6.
Topics are addressed through a series of three engaging animated and live-action video episodes that present real-life simulations. There are also related teacher lesson plans and links to additional resources. And while the focus is on current technologies (such as webcams, chat rooms and gaming), the skill-based approach transcends the technology itself, allowing students to continue making good decisions regardless of how quickly online platforms evolve.
Likewise, the skills taught through the resource transcend different curriculum areas, integrating aspects of character education, Health & Physical Education (in the Personal Safety and Injury Prevention topic area within the Healthy Living Strand) and Language (Media Literacy). According to Heather Gardner, Ophea’s Curriculum Consultant, this cross-curricular approach is key. “It gives students multiple opportunities to demonstrate and reinforce their knowledge,” she says. The Connect[ED] lesson plans are also fully integrated into the Ophea Health and Physical Education (H&PE) Curriculum Resources: Grades 4-6, meaning that educators also have multiple opportunities to integrate them into the classroom.
Connect[ED] is also based strongly in the Healthy Schools approach—a movement that promotes health, academic achievement and social development through coordinated, community-based efforts. Far from expecting educators to ‘go it alone,’ the resource recognizes that Internet safety is a shared responsibility and encourages the involvement of community partners.
“Working with these partners is an effective way to reinforce lessons learned in the classroom,” says Gardner, who suggests that groups such as local police, boards of health, and Kids Help Phone are often willing to do special classroom presentations or to speak at school council meetings. Parents are also considered key players, and are involved through at-home activities designed to foster a strong, continuous home-school relationship.
How can educators learn more?
The DVD format of the resource was disseminated to all Ontario public and Catholic schools with a Grade 4, 5 and 6 classrooms in Fall 2011. The website, www.reallifeonline.ca can be accessed by any interested educator.
Team-based trainings were provided in the Fall of 2011 by Ophea and its partners (Ontario Provincial Police and Kids Help Phone) to six regions (Ottawa, London, Barrie/Orillia, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Toronto) in English. There was also one regional French training event (held via videoconference, for all 12 school boards). Training teams were comprised of school board representatives, parents and local law enforcement officers from each school board/region. The trainings built awareness and knowledge of the issues and the resource and will help ensure sustainability and greater reach of the resource within each school board. In addition, online training supports are available to further support training teams including the provincial training presentation, teacher training module, parent module and training wiki to encourage provincial implementation sharing.
Technology may be changing, but the role of educators is the same...
Is it safe to give out my location on Facebook? Who just follow-Friday’d me, and should I re-tweet? Even for those who make it their business to know what’s new, technology can sometimes move at an unsettling speed. “It can be worrisome for an adult if children seem to know so much more than you do,” comments Slane.
But although, in general, youth may adopt new online platforms with greater ease than adults, one thing hasn’t changed: children depend on their educators, their parents and other trusted adults in their communities for guidance. “I think if we work as a group, committed to the idea that we serve the same role as always—to guide children toward positive behaviours—that’s where our strength will lie,” says Slane.
And by turning to resources such as Connect[ED], educators can put themselves in the best possible position to offer that guidance.