4 strategies for speaking to students about online safety, digital citizenship

A student doesn’t recognize that an online comment was meant to be sarcastic. Another unknowingly provides the time and place of her next soccer match to a stranger she met online. And another student, who’s prone to impulsivity, doesn’t stop to think about the consequences before posting a picture of himself using drugs to a social media page.

All students need to be taught how to navigate online communication and learn what is or is not appropriate to post online, but for some students with disabilities who already struggle with social interactions, the online world can present additional risks.

“Online communication can be even more fraught for these kids because it can be very difficult to tell the intent of the communication,” said Alise Crossland, a senior research analyst with the American Institutes for Research. “Particularly for kids with learning disabilities and for those on the autism spectrum, they’ll more likely need very direct and explicit instruction on what’s safe and not safe to post online.”

Here are pointers to share with your staff:

1. Be explicit in what is and is not OK to share online. 

Online safety is an area where teachers need to provide explicit instruction for students with disabilities about what is and is not appropriate to share, Crossland said. Create a list of the types of personal information that students shouldn’t share online. “Explain that there are adults out there who might be asking for personal information who might not have their best interests in mind,” she said. Discuss privacy settings that students can use to protect their personal information such as turning off geo-tagging in pictures so that photos don’t contain information about location.

2. Take opportunities to model, practice digital citizenship throughout curriculum.

“Digital citizenship and online safety shouldn’t be restricted to a 20-minute lesson in a computer class,” Crossland said. “Students are commenting online, their textbooks are online, they’re creating class wiki pages — each of these is an opportunity to drive these messages home.” For instance, use a lesson on literacy to compare the different types of writing found on a blog, a news website, or a social media page. Use online discussion pages to model how to craft an appropriate online comment and let students practice engaging in a safe online environment where teachers can provide specific feedback, Crossland said. In addition, districts can find a host of digital citizenship lessons and materials through Common Sense Media, Crossland said.

3. Don’t neglect online environments in social skills training.

“When the IEP team is talking about a child’s need for social skills instruction, they shouldn’t only discuss face-to-face interactions, because these kids are going to end up online,” Crossland said. “To not prepare them for those situations when their friends are all online is neglecting an important piece.” Students who have trouble spotting social cues in face-to-face situations may also have trouble navigating online communication, Crossland said. Use examples of online comments to talk about the meaning and intent behind the comments, she said. Call attention to visual cues and other symbols that can help a student infer meaning from online writing, such as a “winky” face emoji or a sarcasm tag at the end of a post.

4. Give students strategies to “walk away” from cyberbullying.

Students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied and that can spread to online bullying. Talk to students about what they can do in a situation where they’re feeling bullied or harmed online. For instance, ask a student, “If someone is bullying you online, what can you do? How can you bring this to your parents? How do you leave an online situation that’s harmful?”

“Students need to know that if someone is abusing them online, they don’t have to listen. Even something as simple as setting your account to private or blocking the person can be helpful to get out of that situation,” Crossland said. “With new apps coming out all the time, parents and teachers aren’t always going to be in the same online spaces to see this communication happening, so they need to talk to students about what to do.”

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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