As an educator I teach my students that they can make a difference in the world, and as a tech integration consultant I promote social media as a means of doing so. Recently, however, a dear family friend has been experiencing the down side of social media, and her "haters" illustrate perfectly why digital citizenship is so important, why we need to start teaching our kids early how to interact in a public (virtual or otherwise) forum, and why it is SO IMPORTANT to extend our outreach to parents and community members.
Let me start at the beginning:
A little over a year ago, I contacted Mindi, founder of the blog Bailing Out Benji, to speak with a class of my students about puppy mills, her blog, and rescue animals, after she helped my sister find a rescue dog. She shared about how she started her journey as an animal rights advocate, and how she used her blog and Facebook page to help educate people about puppy mills.
Last Christmas we adopted a second rescue puppy when my other sister saw that BOB (Bailing Out Benji) was hosting a virtual event called “Home for the Howl-idays” to promote getting shelter dogs and cats into their forever homes (all while going through the shelter application background checks and paperwork) for Christmas.
Finally, this spring I was able to take my two oldest children (8 and 5) to join my sisters and our rescue dogs to Iowa State University where other BOB members were holding an awareness event for college students during finals week.
I am proud to say that BOB is educating my students and my children, as well as myself, about the reality of puppy mills, but also about the impact an individual or small group can make when they have the right tools at their finger tips. Mindi's work has grown from one individual's passion into a thriving group that raises money to support rescue work, educate the public, and raise awareness about puppy mills in Iowa and around the United States.
Fast forward to today. Iowa news stations have been picking up more and more stories about puppy mills thanks to the work of Bailing Out Benji and other awesome rescue workers and volunteers. Along with these stories, we also find the comment section, where people insert some sort of anonymous user name and have the freedom to say whatever they want; true or not, appropriate or not, civil or not.
What frustrates me about these comments on a WHO news story is not that these people have opinions that are blatantly rude (and since I know Mindi personally, I can tell you are also HUGELY false), but that they can hide behind anonymous pseudonyms, spouting whatever they damn well please. You shouldn't be able to anonymously imply that someone is dishonest, a thief, or a liar. You shouldn't be able to anonymously threaten people or make libelous statements. You can, and we all love free speech, but it sucks, and it sends the wrong message.
I wish these people had the opportunity to take a class with me on digital citizenship and how to behave in a public forum, because this behavior could definitely go on my list of “non-examples”.
Why does civility go out the window once people sit behind a computer screen? How am I supposed to teach my students that this isn't okay, when their parents, older siblings, neighbors, etc. are modeling this petty, disgusting behavior? How do we tell kids that cyber-bullying is wrong when these comments are some of the more tame remarks (and sometimes threats) that we see in public forums?
Am I a little biased because I know the person being attacked? Maybe. But rather than "biased," I would say "more informed" - I know these things are untrue, and I know the horrible things being said about her are not only untrue, but incredibly hurtful to a very sweet individual. This is just one small example of the hundreds of comment forums just like this that are filled each day with hate and name-calling.
This makes my drive to grow digital citizenship education that much stronger. Please join me in educating not only our youth, but our communities in what exactly it means to be not just a good DIGITAL citizen, but a good citizen - period.