What Tech Insiders Know About Kids & Tech That We Don't

In the first pages of his best-selling book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, author Adam Alter tells how tech company insiders—like Steve Jobs and others—shielded their own young children from the technology they made. For example, Evan Williams, a founder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, refused to give devices to his young sons and Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired Magazine, didn’t let his five children use screens in their bedrooms. Steve Jobs told The New York Times that his kids did not use the iPad his company had invented. As recently as last year, Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, wrote this in The Washington Post,

"Parents should decide for themselves what works for their family, but I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets. Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it."

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But That's Not the Whole Story

It’s become increasingly fashionable for those who work in or around the tech industry to send

their own children to schools that are tech- free, and Waldorf schools are often a popular choice. Founded in the early 20th century, Waldorf education is based on the insights, teachings and principles of education outlined by artist and scientist, Rudolf Steiner. The principles of Waldorf Education stem largely from an understanding of human development that address the needs of the growing child and many who choose this pedagogy for their own offspring believe that technology is no friend to childhood—a precious time when kids should be playing outdoors and engaging with flesh and blood friends.

But eventually, even kids who go to tech-free schools, grow into young adults who must learn how to navigate an online world full of peril and possibility, and Waldorf teachers and families know this—which is why Cyber Civics, a middle school digital literacy program, has found a home in many of their schools.

In 2011, my own children attended a Waldorf-inspired charter school: Journey School in Southern California. That year our small, close-knit community experienced its first “cyber-incident.” Although this event fell short of actual “cyberbullying”— 8th grade girls were posting pictures on Facebook that were unflattering to one another—feelings were hurt nonetheless. The nurturing environment that students, teachers, and parents had worked so hard to create and maintain was thrown off-balance. The school’s administrator at the time, Shaheer Faltas, who’d just come to Journey School from Kona Pacific Public Charter School, found himself dealing with a stream of teary-eyed girls, upset parents, and confused teachers flowing in and out of his office. He knew it was time to do something, but the question was: What?

How To Prepare Kids for a Digital World?

Cyber Civics Flyer

I had a daughter in that 8th grade class with a sister following just a few years behind and I wanted the school to do something too. Having just completed a M.A. program in “Media Psychology and Social Change,” I had learned what that “What” was…digital literacy. So, I asked Faltas for permission to teach “digital literacy” to Journey School’s middle school students, using an hour a week formerly devoted to “Civics,” to teach “Cyber Civics.” These digital literacy lessons, I told him (secretly hoping I was right), would help prevent future problems from arising, and more importantly, empower students to use technology thoughtfully, ethically, and competently.

Thankfully, our experiment worked. Digital “issues” stopped demanding administrative time or attention, as students started using their new digital wisdom to avoid or solve problems themselves. But more importantly, they started developing a healthy and balanced attitude towards technology, coming to the understanding that those who do not use it well, will get used by it.

"'In the first two years after implementing Cyber Civics, the school’s Academic Performance Index score grew from 766 to 878—the highest in the school’s history,' says Shaheer Faltas, the charter’s outgoing executive director. 'Only three incidents of poor digital behavior or online bullying have been reported since 2010, and none have occurred in the last two years,' he adds."

-Lauren Williams, District Administration Magazine, 7/24/15

When we started experiencing success with our own students at Journey, other Waldorf schools, public and private, expressed interest in the curriculum, so we placed the entire program online and made it available via subscription. Soon all kinds of schools—public, private, Montessori, Catholic, and more—starting teaching Cyber Civics to their students too. Today the program—a series of easy, hands-on lessons taught in the classroom— is being taught in schools in 33 U.S. states, four other countries, and it continues to grow! A book about the program—CYBERCIVICS: A Parents Guide to Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology” Book (Amacom/World Rights)—is even due out early next year.

Three Years to Digital Literacy

At Journey School we soon discovered that allocating an hour per week to these lessons in 6th grade wasn’t nearly enough time. It takes at least three years to cover all the concepts that constitute “digital literacy.” The first year of the program, recommended for 6th grade (some schools start as early as 5th, others wait until 7th or 8th), teaches digital citizenship,” which is “the safe and responsible use of online tools.” Lessons—about 50 minutes long—

are taught entirely without actual technology because, according to experts, the most important media literacy skills are “social and behavioral skills” and those are learned through engagement with others. So, students engage using critical thinking, ethical discussion and decision making during hands-on projects, problem solving activities, and role-play surrounding digital media topics. They keep beautiful lesson books to track their discoveries. It is an important year in which they learn what it means to be a member of a community, about digital reputations, how a computer works, how to avoid cyberbullying and digital drama, what steps to take to protect their personal information, and much more.

These classes were met with such enthusiasm, not only from students who were excited to finally talk about their digital world, but by grateful parents and teachers too, that we decided to keep going. So, building upon this foundation, we added a year of “Information Literacy” lessons because students must know how to use digital tools to do research. This means they need to know what keywords are and how to write effective search queries. They need to understand copyright, plagiarism, fair use, public domain, Creative Commons, Wikipedia, and more. Possibly the most important thing students will learn in this second year, is that when they search for something online, Google gathers up their personal information and then feeds them information it thinks they want. These “filter bubbles,” they discover, are largely responsible for the divided world we know today.

Finally, the program concludes with a third year that brings all these concepts together. Called “Media Literacy for Positive Participation,” this level challenges students to use critical thinking skills to analyze media messages. They explore stereotypes in media, fake news, “Photoshopped” images, online hoaxes, and more. They use their Information and Media Literacy skills to prepare for 8th grade projects, doing research, writing papers, and making presentations. But, most importantly, they are encouraged to participate with media in powerful and productive ways. Our aim is for students to understand how these powerful tools can be harnessed to make the world a better place.

Jennifer Helmick, a teacher at the Waldorf School at Moraine Farm in Beverly, Massachusetts, has delivered Cyber Civics lessons to her own school’s middle school students. She recently wrote in her school’s blog,

“While as a Waldorf school we encourage limits to screen time, especially in the younger years, there’s a wide range among our families as to the use of computers, smart phones, and other devices. In the middle school, most students are using the Internet and social media outside of school. Here’s a great quote I can relate to:

‘Our children are growing up on a digital playground, and no one’s on recess duty.’ –Kevin Honeycutt

So, we’re hoping as teachers and parents we can take our heads out of whatever layer of sand we’re in, go out on recess duty together, and give them the adult guidance they need.”

What Students Need Is What the World Needs

“The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility.”

-Rudolf Steiner

These three capacities, identified by Rudolf Steiner so long ago, are needed more than ever today, especially when it comes to technology use. Here’s why:

Imagination: Born of imagination and ingenuity, technology will continue to be innovated and, hopefully, improved by out-of-the box thinkers set on making a better mousetrap. I have an inkling that students educated in rich and imaginative settings that revere childhood and see it as a time to cultivate creativity, can and will make it better.

Truth: Current events aptly demonstrate that making, finding and identifying truth online is a skillset in high demand. On this topic, Helmick writes,