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Cyber Civics: Building a brighter digital future, one classroom at a time
Diana Graber stands at the blackboard while teaching a course she calls "cyber civics." Graber and the school systems at which she teaches think it's important for students to know best practices for online etiquette and behavior. - photo by Chandra Johnson
Earlier this year, middle school teacher Diana Grabers 16-year-old daughter popped her head into Grabers office asking for advice.

Her concern wasnt about school or boys but, to Grabers surprise, Instagram.

Shed taken this shot of herself and she wanted to know if she should post it, Graber said.

The photo was fairly standard fare for Instagram a picture of Grabers daughter in a bathing suit. The two considered the angle and what Grabers daughter was trying to accomplish with the photo. In the end, the photo was posted with some editing input from Graber and her daughter went on with her day.

A 16-year-old asking for guidance posting an Instagram I consider that a major victory, Graber said. Kids today know a lot more about technology than their parents do, and we cant talk at them about this because we dont get it.

For many kids and teens who grow up with social media and parents who dont always understand it, knowing whats safe and whats not can be difficult. When her daughter was younger, Graber says she feared that her daughter could get into trouble online and Graber wouldnt know how to help her. Like many parents, she vaguely understood the notions of cyberbullying or how a photo or status update could impact her childs future job or college application prospects, but she wasnt sure how to prevent them from happening.

Graber turned her fears into an educational opportunity. She went back to UCLA and got her masters degree in media psychology and social change and six years ago, wrote the curriculum of a three-year weekly program she calls Cyber Civics.

Written for grades six through eight, Cyber Civics covers a wide breadth of skills needed for the digital world, including respectful communication skills, sourcing accurate information, and forming a responsible digital footprint in the form of thinking before posting photos or comments online. So far, its been picked up by 23 schools across four states. Grabers daughter took the course when she attended Journey School in Aliso Viejo, Calif., where Graber teaches.

I was right there with her when she was 13 and she got on social media, so shes used to having me in her digital world, Graber said. Its how weve parented offline for ages giving input and being present in their decisions.

Grabers program has great timing for schools that must integrate digital literacy training to align with newly adopted Common Core standards, which require students to not only learn how the Internet works, but how to use it responsibly and safely.

But Graber says the program is also a good learning opportunity for parents and families who feel overwhelmed by technology their children pick up naturally.

Were at the moment where this (education) has to happen for both parents and kids to be comfortable and safe in the digital world, Graber said. This is our moment.

The sweet spot

At a time when children are sometimes exposed to technology before they can walk or talk, it may seem counterintuitive to delay teaching kids digital conduct and best practices until middle school.

But understanding actions and long-term consequences like how an unflattering photo could hurt future job prospects is a form of reasoning that starts developing around age 12, making middle school the developmental sweet spot to introduce Cyber Civics, Graber says.

Kids spend more time with media than they do in school or with their parents. Its crazy not to talk about the world theyre in, Graber said. We wanted to try and get ahead of some of the problems that can happen, so we start in sixth grade and by the time theyre in high school, theyre prepared for what can happen.

But middle school is also the best time to introduce these concepts of digital ethics from how to be considerate and empathetic when making an online comment to citing accurate information in school term papers because of the cognitive capabilities of kids age 12-13.

Before that age, argues education director Patti Connolly, ethical dilemmas the program teaches dont stick and by high school age, most kids will have been on social media for five years or more without any formal instruction on the ramifications of their online actions.

We want to work with them on some of the dilemmas theyll face with social media sharing, texting, plagiarism and other problems before theyre too hooked in, but not before they can grasp it, Connolly said. In some instances the window of opportunity might close forever.

Connolly says children have time-sensitive windows of opportunity when the ability to learn certain concepts is at its peak age ranges when the brain is plastic enough to process larger amounts of certain kinds of information than at any other time. For example, kids ages 2-4 develop basic reasoning skills through play and face-to-face contact. Children that age who dont get the contact they need might struggle later in life with interpersonal communication or relational skills.

The course is written so that kids can grasp these problems in simple terms without going online. In one lesson for seventh graders, the students pose as businesses considering resumes of fictional job applicants. The students then have to check out the applicants fictional social media profiles and websites, where they find questionable photos and catch the applicants in lies.

The goal, Graber says, is to teach the kids that figuring out whats true and whats not online is hard and that photos and unfavorable comments are difficult to get rid of. Because the class debates the issues together rather than just reading about it in a book, the lessons tend to make a bigger impression.

The class lets students experience it together and create social norms for online behavior on their own, Graber said.

Journey School administrator and executive director Shaheer Faltas says that while some schools might save digital literacy for annual assemblies rather than an entire class, the benefits of the extended class have been serious for Journey. When Faltas first agreed to give Grabers class a spot in the lesson plan, his office was dealing with students' social media squabbles regularly.

In six years we havent had a single episode of cyberbullying or any incident related to digital trauma. Its a gamble not to teach this, Faltas said. If we care about our children and our society, we have to teach kids how to be good citizens. How can we do that without talking about digital citizenship?

Empowering parents

Graber created Cyber Civics to help parents as much as children. Just ask mother of two Michelle Spieker, who says Grabers yearly parent presentations changed her approach to parenting.

My husband and I were really nave and in the dark about it, and a little frightened, I think, Spieker said. Dianas program really opened our eyes about how something as innocent as positing a picture can become a dangerous or devastating situation for self-esteem if the kids depend too much on likes or if they have to deal with negative comments.

Spieker says its difficult for people who didnt grow up in the digital age to parent in it.

You feel like you know something, but until you understand the scope, you dont even know what you dont know, Spieker said. Its like trying to know what an elephant looks like by just touching its ear.

But Spieker says Cyber Civics helped put she and her sixth-grade daughter on the same page and understand the cultural gap between their generation. One of Spiekers daughters first assignments was to interview her family about what technology was like when they were growing up.

It interested her that we had a phone with a cord and a busy signal. She was blown away that you might not always be able to notify someone if youre late, Spieker said. That was the first moment it struck both of us how far this has all come.

Spieker said Cyber Civics helped both she and her daughter make better decisions. When her daughter wanted a cell phone at 11, Spieker said she and her husband didnt feel pressure to hand it over blindly.

And when Spieker didnt think to tell a babysitter not to post pictures of her kids online, her daughter piped up to tell the sitter Spieker wouldnt approve. Now, Spieker says shes much more confident.

This has all changed the parenting dynamic and it has amazing consequences for our kids, Spieker said. If were not addressing it, were being neglectful as parents an we dont even know it.

As more schools adopt Cyber Civics, Grabers dream for her program is to be put out of business when her practices become common sense for everyone. Until then, shes out to raise awareness. This summer, Graber will present at a national conference of Waldorf Academy schools before gearing up for a new year.

We cant slap digital literacy on as an assembly or an after-school program, Graber said. The tools are going to change, apps are going to change, but human behavior doesnt change. We want kids to be good people no matter where they are, even in the online world.
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