Let Me Take A #Selfie Generation

Exploring: Cyber Civil Rights, Social Media Presence, and Online Safety & Privacy

I ask him to stop playing games on his phone. Yes, it is the end of the school day, but students are still expected to work. Besides, the “No electronic devices or headphones” sign is up.

“I’m sorry Ms. Ochman. Give me another chance?” I do. I make it clear that he cannot play games on his phone, and I point again to the sign. Then I walk away.

Two minutes later, he is playing a soccer game on his phone again. I quickly confiscate the phone and lock it up in a drawer in my desk. The wide-eyed begging and pleading that ensues at the end of the school day scares me. But it does not sway me from the consequence I have doled out.

“Please, Ms. Ochman, I won’t do it again. I’ll write you an essay. I’ll clean your room.” He announces a dozen other reasons, and also reminds me that he’ll miss his bus if I don’t give him his phone back.

“I’m sorry. There are consequences for your actions. You have a night without your phone. You can explain to your parents why you don’t have it tonight,” I explain my thinking, as he looks on, desperation mounting, “I let you persuade me against consequences last time. This time, there are consequences. I’m asking you to deal with them.”

Let me take a #selfie.This scenario truly played out last week in my classroom at the end of the day with a 13-year-old male student of mine. His actions and pleading words help to illustrate the increasing dependence I am seeing with my students for their cell phones and other electronic devices. This is not an isolated incident. I frequently hear hyperbolic statements like “I’d DIE without my phone.” This reliance and connectedness to technology in daily life demands that we educate the “digital native” generation, as Citron calls it in her article, “Combating Cyber Gender Harassment,” and the nation’s public about cyber civil rights, the impact of one’s personal presence in social media, and safety and privacy of online information.

Cyber Civil Rights

It is truly bothersome that “trivialization of cyber gender harassment” is indeed a problem widely seen today on the web (Citron 2009). We would expect that no one in public would go up to a woman and begin dirty talking to her and raping her in broad daylight with hundreds of people around, and yet this behavior is expected and (in so many ways) accepted online, in virtual games like Second Life. When victims do not feel comfortable standing up for themselves and bystanders do not become upstanders (people who stand up for victims), it says a lot about the societal norms we have come to accept, even if it is online, even if there is such a thing as “Wild West norms” (Citron 2009). If it is not condoned in life away from the screen, it should not be supported or ignored on the screen. Victim shaming, or blaming, is a very real and pervasive issue online, as it holds its own definition on Urban Dictionary, has a plethora of posts featured on Tumblr, and is the subject of various public events and online focus groups.

To move beyond this denial (or downright reversal of wrongdoing) of cyber gender harassment, we need more of a positive online presence to help broaden awareness in schools. Citron’s article spawned a website, http://www.cybercivilrights.org/, which was founded by Dr. Holly Jacobs, and provides information and support for the “End Revenge Porn” campaign. With an online presence, legislation may indeed soon be put into place to support cyber civil rights, so that victims are no longer written a prescription of “opting out.” While Citron suggests legislation can “condemn cyber gender harassment” and “change the norms of acceptable online behavior,” I think schools must step up to advance these purposes regardless of any impending legislation. We must teach our students responsible online behavior and what inappropriate, condemnable behavior looks like. Citron may have a gender-based agenda, but as a teacher, I will be looking to defend potential victims of all discrimination: race, gender, age, sexual orientation, groups participated in at school, socioeconomic status, language, etc. It is important for students to recognize differences and not to “diss” others because of these differences. With a structured environment to develop appropriate online behaviors, classrooms can begin to change the norms. Perhaps encouraging schools to have a media literacy, online responsibility, and cyber civil rights day at schools would be a way to spread awareness without much in the way of formal reform.

Personal Presence in Social Media

Next, to speak to the impact of one’s personal presence on social media, “Race and Social Media: How to Push the Conversation Forward” supplied plenty of ideas, potential solutions, and anticipated issues with the wide array of social media choices available. Yes, it is wonderful that such a large scale of different people from around the world can converse with one another on any number of topics. It is also wonderful that certain topics that may have been more taboo in the past (racism, gender inequality, homosexuality, etc.) are now more prevalent in online conversations. However, that doesn’t equate to all-inclusive, all-powerful perfection. As Latoya Peterson points out, “when you start deploying these types of terms,” referring to words such as nigger, “we’re also exposing it to people who would never come across these terms, but suddenly feel like they have permission to use [them.](Petronzio 2014)” Any playful or neutral term has the ability to become sour, derogatory, and flammable online. Cracker, for instance, can refer to a crunchy carbohydrate treat. When commented on a Youtube video, “cracker” can become fuel for an on-going thread of war.

No legislation and no educational reform can stop citizens or students from using certain words. Schools do have special restrictions on freedom of speech, thankfully. (Consequently, we can create legislation, which prevents against undue harm from online behaviors. How that legislation would read, I’m not sure, but I know it can and should be done.) Again, I believe the solution starts in classrooms: we must teach our students the power of words. Especially in English language arts classes, why not spend some time teaching the standard of recognizing an author’s word choice by also discussing the impact of words students use in daily life, in person and online? After all, adding personal relevance and context to learning is what helps to make it stick, according to an Edutopia article, entitled “Science Shows Making Lessons Relevant Really Matters.”

Safety and Privacy of Online Information

In Petronzio’s (2014) “Race and Social Media,” Latoya Peterson also discusses her wariness of posting certain articles because of how they may be received by the online community. If we post something, that opens it for discussion to the public. Anyone can see it, read it, share it, comment on it, like it, flag it, or interact with it. While this is a blessing for education and development of communities, it can also be a curse. What might be intended when originally posting an item is not necessarily how an item may be (ab)used online. Privacy is not something the majority of my students probably consider when texting, Kik-ing, Instagram-ing, or tweeting their friends, much like most of the general public before #CallsTheNSAKnowsAbout (Holmes 2013). Holmes suggests that not much (if any) of our online data is private, and that we don’t really think twice about companies and businesses having access to our data “because there are benefits to it.” The moment we started questioning the government keeping an eye on our data was the moment we realized the government has a “variety of motives” and powers, such as the abilities to “arrest you, deport you, fine you, jail you, try you, charge you, tax you, or confiscate your stuff.” (Holmes 2013) Data, our daily currency, the stuff we trade to interact with others, to communicate, and to live our lives has become so seemingly seamless that we forget to question its origins, its whereabouts, its potential future destinations.

Is our data completely safe online? No. Is anything completely safe in life though? No. Even the most sterile environment in a hospital has sharp instruments on which one can be harmed. Even away from a computer derogatory terms can still be uttered. No environment, no matter how many precautions and regulations, will ever be completely, undeniably safe. That’s not to say we can’t do everything in our power to make online environments safer.

Is our data private anywhere? Possibly. Then again, even if you have your information as a single hardcopy document, locked up in a safe, that safe can be broken into. Even if you encrypt the heck out of a document on your computer, someone is bound to be able to hack it. Especially online, our information can be viewed and used as people like, if they have the means and motive to access them. Holmes (2013) asks though, in relation to people peeking into our daily data: “But would we really care?“ It depends on the situation. I do not think we care, really, until the moment something goes wrong.

Anticipation & Action

Whether we are users of the Internet, educators of young minds, creators of social media content, or human beings who would like to maintain our individuality and civil rights, we must take action to ensure a safe online experience for current and future generations. We must not wait until the moment something goes wrong. Things have already gone wrong. Women are seeing injustices online (Citron 2009). Social media users are abusing one another with words online (Petronzio 2014), leading to the necessity of helpful, hopeful videos like Zachary Quinto’s “it gets better.” Our data is not safe. Our data is not private. Though the government’s watchful eye has now become more apparent, we still have everyday tasks, like swiping our credit card for a meal at P.F. Chang’s jeopardizing our financial well-being when hackers arrive.

One of my favorite quotes that I repeatedly recite to my students is by the late Maya Angelou: “When you know better, you do better.” I constantly embed this sentiment into instruction (as I did in giving my cell phone-dependent student consequences for knowing better, and not doing better the second time around.) Now that we know the injustices occurring online, we must push for legislation and education reforms, which will better protect the civil rights, safety, privacy, and emotional well-being of the Internet’s users.

Part of the way in which I recommend pushing for such legislation is by spreading awareness through the creation of websites and movements, like Dr. Holly Jacobs’ http://www.cybercivilrights.org/ and the “End Revenge Porn” campaign. In classrooms, educators must take responsibility for teaching twenty first century skills needed for today’s “digital native” citizens. Administrators can push for inclusion of a cyber civil rights day, or of media literacy and responsibility and awareness of online issues (such as cyberbullying) within and across curricula. Companies and well-known educational websites, such as Google and TED, can help to spread the word by uploading content related to cyber civil rights and appropriate online behavior. These mediums may prove extremely accessible, interesting, and relevant to students. We cannot anticipate every problem, but now that we have seen the consequences of doing nothing (teen suicide, identity theft, sexual harassment, real offline violence…) we must do something.

Internet Citizens: we know better. Now, let’s do better.

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