So what social skills should we be teaching with regard to the Internet and who should be teaching them? To me, mean, disrespectful behavior on-line is similar to mean, disrespectful behavior off-line, and I’d agree with Dana Boyd in her article for the Washington Post, that labeling this behavior as bullying doesn’t necessarily help to deal with the issue. People may not see themselves as bullies, even when they’re aware that their behavior might, intentionally or unintentionally, upset others. Whether we worry about labeling this behavior or not, I’d also agree wit Dana that, ‘Empathy, not technology, is the core of the problem and the solution’. So the question for me becomes, where do issues regarding disrespectful behavior generally ‘fit’ in the curriculum?
My students saw cyber-bullying slightly differently. They thought there were differences between the cyber world and face-to -face interactions. They believed that you were more likely to say unpleasant things on the Internet, partly because the person couldn’t retaliate by hitting you(!) and partly because you couldn’t see the reaction of the person receiving the insult/joke, so you were less likely to empathize with the victim. These seemed like two good reasons why there might be bullying on-line and why it should be addressed. Other students pointed out that if you bully on-line it can be quite public, and if students are educated to intervene in these situations, rather than being bystanders, then bullying on-line might be nipped in the bud. This seemed like another good reason for teaching students to recognize and intervene in cases of disrespectful behavior.
But do classes in how to treat people really work? Can empathy be taught in discreet lessons? Is putting yourself in other people’s shoes best tackled in English, where literature can help us empathize with characters, or would Social Studies, where we address issues related to stereotyping and resolving conflict be a good starting place? This year we had cyber-bullying discussions written into our advisory program. Our advisory structure has 10 students meeting with a teacher they’ve chosen and who they’ve built up a relationship with over the year. However, discussions once a week for half an hour can sometimes feel rather contrived, so perhaps Health, an every-other-day semester-long class, where teachers discuss other mental health issues, as well as peer pressure and relationships, might be a more comfortable environment in which to discuss the issues. I decided to ask my students where they felt it fitted best. As far as my students were concerned bullying/disrespect should either be addressed in Advisory, where they felt that small groups enabled greater participation in discussions, or Health, because they felt that bullying could affect ones mental health. I also think that the atmosphere created in a Health class, where students have to feel comfortable talking about a range of issues, might be another reason why students felt that this was an appropriate place to discuss these issues.
Common Sense Media has some great ideas for addressing most aspects of citizenship and the Internet. As a teacher of 8th graders I think I’d have to go for the activities aimed at older students (9-12 grade) as the work aimed at grades 6-8 seemed rather young in its language and lay-out, particularly the rather twee drawings. I was a little surprised that such a technology-focused topic would be so dated in its layout and graphics. These lesson plans could however be adapted and used as a basis to address the topic.
Finally, I think it’s all of our jobs to model appropriate behavior and use teachable moments when they occur. It’s easy to shy away from getting involved because we have a curriculum to cover or we’re worried that the students involved need to be protected, but usually students know about the issue anyway and, depending on the sensitivity of the issue, might welcome the opportunity to discuss it in a safe environment.