Kids are creative when it comes being cruel online.
On Instagram, they’ll post a group photo from a party and tag someone who wasn’t invited to make them feel bad. They use music sharing apps to cyberbully each other in the comments of a song. Kids are even on Twitter “subtweeting” each other, making comments about people without directly using their names, just like the grownups do.
Google wants to teach children how to protect themselves online and, hopefully, be a little less terrible to each other.
The company is teaming up with educators and internet safety groups for Be Internet Awesome, a new campaign aimed at making middle and elementary school students into responsible digital citizens.
The centerpiece of Google’s program is an engaging game called Interland. It covers how to spot phishing and other scams, good password habits, not sharing personal information, kindness and conflict resolution. The game is available online for anyone to play.
“A lot of it is just ignorance,” said Jennie Magiera, chief innovation officer for a school district outside of Chicago. “We can get to them early, [and] teach them what trolling is.”
Part of Magiera’s job is making sure students and teachers “know how to use technology for good and not evil.” An expert in digital citizenship tools, Magiera was an early tester for Be Internet Awesome. After getting sucked into the game herself, she was also an unexpected success story.
“I have a master’s degree and I just learned more about password safety from this game from fourth graders [than I knew before],” said Magiera.
Using the Be Internet Awesome classroom curriculum, teachers guide students through Internet basics. Later the kids hone their skills by playing Interland.
To cross “reality river,” they have to correctly answer questions about accepting friend requests from strangers, spotting fake news, and recognizing email scams. In another level, they are on a quest to spread good vibes, nix the bad, and report bullies.
Many adults could benefit from the lessons in the game as well. A lack of online literacy might be one reason many parents don’t think to have “the talk” with their kids about online behavior. Magiera finds many parents aren’t even aware that kids under 13 aren’t allowed on most social media sites. Parents may also mistake their child’s technical proficiency with actually understanding the intricacies of online interactions.
“Educators and parents are the first line of defense to create responsible digital citizens,” said Stacey Finkle of the International Society for Technology in Education. The organization worked with Google to make sure the game met its standards.
More awareness and empathy can reach kids who are mean online because they don’t know any better or are following a stronger personality, said Magiera. But a class can’t prevent everyone from growing up to hurl insults on Twitter or in internet comments sections.
“There are some kids who are dealing with deeper issues or challenges that cause them to bully,” said Magiera. “A cyberbullying curriculum isn’t going to be a high enough tier of intervention.”