The fact that everything on the Internet lives forever can make it terrifying for parents to let their kids take their first steps into the digital space. Is there anything that can be done to prevent a stumble?
A school in Tacoma is trying to help prepare kids for their life in the digital space with a mandatory digital citizenship class. Holly Gerla teaches the ninth-grade course at Charles Wright Academy.
"It is a class that is designed for us to have a chance to talk to kids specifically about how they behave in the digital world and how to navigate the digital world as they're coming of age," Gerla tells KIRO Radio's Jason Rantz, "what they need to be doing in terms of making good decisions for themselves, what does their footprint look like, how should they be careful, how can they use these things responsibly."
Of course, kids don't need lessons in how to work social media, they can do that better than most adults, but where adults can help, she says, is in guiding them about what is appropriate for public consumption.
"What we have as adults in their lives is the wisdom to help them make better decisions and to use it responsibly."
A lot of her students are surprised when she challenges them to Google their names and see what comes up.
"Almost every time I've done that, kids have been surprised to find things that pop up that they did not realize were public that other people can see."
"They actually look at what does it say about my privacy in Facebook's terms of service, or Snapchat or Instagram, and what am I giving away in order to get that service from them," says Gerla. "What am I actually giving up, or what are they asking of me? Who owns my data? What can they do with my pictures if I share them?"
In her own home, Gerla says no one is allowed to sign up for a social media account until they are at least 13 years old. And everyone has to read through all the terms of service.
"At our house, you don't sign up for an account until you're 13 because that is the legal age, many people don't even know that, that because of federal legislation to protect children's privacy, you have to be 13 years of age," says Gerla. "That is the age at which websites begin to collect private information about you."
Once kids begin sharing their personal information after becoming active on social media, Gerla says the conversation should continue.
"We're having kind of an ongoing dialogue about what that means all the time. Is it OK to share this? Is it not OK to share this? What should I do here?"
Another thing she's trying to teach students beyond protecting their privacy and online image, is setting a good example by what you contribute to the digital space. And practice makes perfect. All students in the class publish something to start and observe an online dialogue.
"Every student in our class researches a topic of their interest they write about it on a very public blog that we have, and we then share that with as many people as we can to try to get some feedback, and then moderate civil discourse online," says Gerla.
"As they start to get feedback and they realize that other people are paying attention and reading what they have to say, and that it's important, it becomes a much more engaging space to be in. We can actually communicate with other people that way and have an ongoing dialogue rather than just sharing stuff and we're done."
To learn more about the course and what you can do to help your kids become better online citizens, listen to the full interview: