Are you a digital native or an immigrant? Chances are that if you are of my generation, you are most likely a digital immigrant into the mysterious world they call cyberspace. It’s our children who are digital natives, cyberspace their natural habitat and touchscreens their natural interface.
This digital world with no boundaries is increasingly overtaking the real world for all of us as our virtual and real lives intersect and overlap, both socially and professionally. And, as a first-generation digital immigrant and the mother of two digital natives, I find it has become my job to navigate this new world for my family much as a geographical immigrant would, attempting to get the best out of it while retaining existing family and cultural values and teaching my children basic rules and boundaries.
And I’m not alone. Teachers, counsellors, educators and others of my generation across different countries are struggling every day with teaching our young digital natives how to use their power responsibly when they post online, “like” and “join” groups, and to navigate this world with at least as much critical thinking that they would use in their real lives.
Not only does the Internet collect, compile and use a frightening amount of information about us (it’s becoming clear now, that even the “do no evil” Google, is using and perhaps misusing our data for corporate gain), we also unknowingly end up creating digital profiles of ourselves, that may not reflect our real selves accurately, through the language we use, the sites we visit, the photos we send. Our digital reputation is like a tattoo — it can never completely be erased, and it’s becoming increasingly challenging to teach our children how to handle this reality.
One of the best resources I’ve been using for this purpose for almost half a decade is Common Sense Media, (www.commonsensemedia.org) a non-partisan, not-for profit US organisation that provides information and tools as well as an independent forum to give families “a choice and a voice about the media they consume.” And while in the Bay Area last week, I discovered another, much smaller but equally powerful local resource that parents in the biggest tech-community are beginning to use — MyDigitalTAT2, started by Erica Pelavin, a family psychologist and Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, a social worker and educator.
These women — between them, the mothers of five digital natives — interact with, counsel and teach thousands of other digital citizens everyday. Their mission is “to help educators, parents and students work together to create a community of kindness and respect, both on and offline.” They do this through training workshops, user-generated you-tube videos, situational role play and discussions.
“A digital tattoo once made can fade, but never be removed,” Pelavin tells me as we whiz down California’s Highway 280. She emphasises that our presence and identity on the web has practically replaced the handshake. Anyone can search for anything on the web — and that includes boyfriends, potential employers — or college admission administrators. And that’s why one of Pelavin’s workshops specifically teaches strategies to build a positive digital portfolio. Children are encouraged to re-read emails before sending, be mindful of what they write or blog, and think before they post pictures or visit dubious sites, in case it is misunderstood.
MyDigitalTAT2 also engages digital citizens in thoughtful conversations about the importance of privacy, strategies to think before you click, and, most importantly, tools to stand up to social cruelty. “E-communications have created a place for bullying to occur 24/7 through text messaging, Facebook and instant messaging,” stresses Pelavin.
Some parents feel that because their kids are digital natives, they will learn to deal with the dangers of the digital world experientially. But as Pelavin explains graphically, that is like buying your 16-year old a car, handing him a bottle of alcohol and letting him loose on the highway.
So the two moms teach parents how to stand up to cyber-bullying and common sense strategies for cyber-safety, as well as supervision and overuse. Parents learn cyber-sense as they navigate social networking sites and figure out how cyber-reputation and digital tattoos are formed. Pelavin and Moskowitz-Sweet provide them with tools to guide their children to become smart, ethical producers and consumers of technology. “Be curious, not furious,” is Pelavin’s advice.
It’s time we began these conversations with our children, regardless of where we live — at the earliest age possible, but definitely before middle school, when their world widens and adult supervision decreases. Developmentally, this is also the time students are most vulnerable to peer pressure. “Our kids need a virtual road map,” says Pelavin. And so do we.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based writer