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Why Districtwide Focus on Cybercivility Benefits Us All

 BY ANDREA WECKERLE

For school administrators, teachers or parents, it’s enough to make one’s head spin. With narcissistic selfies taken seemingly everywhere, reputation-damaging tweets being posted without consideration for negative fallout and the illegal sharing of nude pictures of underage girls, it can seem as though the online world is a crazy and scary place.

As the founder of CiviliNation, a nonprofit organization promoting responsible behavior in cyberspace by those of all ages, I understand the challenges that the modern Internet-driven world brings. But more than anything, I believe it also offers us tremendous opportunities.

The World Wide Web is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and to ensure it lives up to its full potential in the next quarter century, we need to focus as much on online social protocols and behaviors as we do on purely technological progress.

Affecting Futures

It’s estimated that 95 percent of American teenagers 12-17 are online, with 80 percent of them using social media. Meanwhile, nearly three-fourths of American adults use social networking sites. Globally, by the end of 2014, there will be nearly 3 billion Internet users. The web has become an inextricable part of our daily lives.

Schools have a strong social influence on children, and as such, they represent an excellent base from which cybercivility can be taught. They offer an ideal setting in which to educate individuals about how to successfully navigate the sometimes confusing online environment. Helping them learn reputation management, online safety and digital citizenship is an important step in becoming productive members of society.

Creating a communitywide base from which to engage students, parents, teachers and administrators and other members of the local community is a positive move toward taking responsibility for the type of world we all want to live in.

Schools play an important role in educating students not only through the core subjects they teach, but also by explaining and modeling how to be productive members of society. Knowing the ins and outs of how to interact appropriately with others online and how to put one’s best foot forward are important components of this. As much as we want children and teenagers to learn what not to do, we also need to teach them what to do and how to do it.

The 2013 Kaplan Test Prep survey of nearly 400 college admissions officers nationwide found that 29 percent say they have used Google to learn more about applicants, 31 percent say they’ve visited applicants’ Facebook pages, and 30 percent indicate they discovered something online that negatively affected candidates’ applications. A 2012 CareerBuilder survey found 37 percent of companies use social networking sites to research job candidates. So whether high school students go to college or enter the workforce immediately after graduation, the way they act and pre-sent themselves online can play an important role in their futures.

Schools can have a positive influence on students that lasts well beyond the K-12 years by emphasizing the need to think before posting and to consider the possible negative repercussions of their behavior before hitting send. This in turn will help students create a more positive online reputation, one that appeals to colleges and employers alike.

Coexistent Free Speech

While most people say they are in favor of civility, one of the questions I am asked most frequently is how civility and freedom of speech can coexist. It’s important to remember, however, that civility and freedom of speech aren’t mutually exclusive and that a foundation of civility actually encourages individuals to express themselves.

Humans always have created social norms, expectations and rules of behavior that help society work more effectively. Civility enables us all to share our views, even about uncomfortable or difficult subjects, in a way that encourages people to engage. Civility therefore shouldn’t be considered some antiquated or unrealistic notion. Rather, it’s a social mechanism through which we can come together and share ideas and have passionate debate and spirited dissent, without trying to eviscerate those with whom we disagree.

We must realize if we make others so uncomfortable they decide to disengage or if we try to shut them down through fear, harassment, lies or abuse, we’ve effectively taken away their freedom of speech. Actions such as those are not what an enlightened society should support.

A Contagious Risk

When we consider what happens to children who are bullied, practicing civility becomes even more urgent. People who are bullied as children and teens have a greater than average risk of running into problems with the law once they become adults. And since bullying isn’t just something that happens face-to-face, but now-adays takes place remotely due to mobile capabilities, creating an environment that fosters civility minimizes the risk of children being targeted both online and off.

Researchers from the University of California at San Diego recently reported that feelings expressed online are emotionally contagious. It’s clear our behavior has an effect on our surroundings. Let’s make sure what we exude is positive.

Andrea Weckerle is the founder of CiviliNation in Minneapolis, Minn., and the author of Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies, and Other Jerks. E-mail: info@civilination.org. Twitter: @aweckerle and @civilination

 

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