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Profile Pictures and Online Bios: The Technology Lessons Pre-Teens Really Need

6th Grade Selfies

Separation-ideation. This is a fancy psychological term for a developmental task that occurs in early adolescence, when a child begins to separate from their family of origin in order to begin building an identity of their own. Today, much of this important work is done—you guessed it—online.

That’s why the final unit of Cyber Civics: Level 1 (Digital Citizenship) focuses on “Identity and Privacy.” These lessons are generally taught in 6th grade (in some schools, 5th grade), so they coincide with this developmental time when students are thinking about how to present themselves to others, online and off.

Presenting oneself online, brings up certain questions (or should, at least) about what NOT to disclose. Knowing where to draw this important line is really hard for preteens who are eager and excited to engage in two other developmental tasks: self-disclosure, the sharing of experiences with peers, and impression management, the actions one takes to control their image. You can imagine how social media, online games, and even texting, provide ample opportunities for youth to engage in ALL of these pre-adolescent developmental milestones.

Practicing Identity Management Through Cyber Civics

In the lesson, My Self My Selfie, students carefully examine the self-portraits of several famous artists, like Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and more. After all, self-portraits are essentially "selfies," and you can learn a lot about a person by studying their self-portrait.

Frida Kahlo

Discussing what each painting tells us about the artist who painted it helps students consider how MUCH information we give away when we post a photo online. It also helps them consider what sort of digital impression they want to make.

For this lesson’s activity, students are asked to imagine they are going to open a social media account where they’ll have to upload a profile picture. But the problem is… the camera hasn’t been invented yet! So they have to draw their profile picture. The “selfies” they draw always astonish me, not only because of how good they are, but also because of the amount of information each one tells me about the student who drew it.

Selfie of boy

It is a powerful lesson about being careful and thoughtful about the images we choose to post online. After all, if a picture in the past was “worth a thousand words,” certainly a selfie today is worth at least that and much more.

Your Bio Matters

The lesson that follows is one of my favorites to teach too. It’s called, You, in Six Words.

One of the biggest challenges for youth just starting to present themselves online is writing a short bio that accurately and appropriately represents who they are; this lesson helps them do just that.

Most social networking sites require users to write a short bio that appears alongside their profile picture, and oftentimes this information is available to the public by default. So it’s important for students to learn to write a bio that won’t do damage to their digital reputations.

The lesson begins by introducing students to the art of telling a story in just six words. It is said that Ernest Hemingway did with this short novel: For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

Students are then asked to write a “bio” (a short online biography) in just in six words too. But here’s the twist. Each student receives the name, in secret, of a classmate. The bio they write will be for that classmate (this is much easier than writing their own). Then, each student comes to the front of the classroom and reads the bio, and the rest of the class tries to guess who the bio was written for. They are remarkably good at this too! And the bios they write for one another are as amazing as their selfies, for example:

Tall in spirit and real life

Intelligent, on the field and school

Shy but kind, tiny but mighty

Using Technology Wisely Takes a Bit of Practice

Knowing how to appropriately present oneself to the world is challenging for everyone, but especially so for young students still trying to figure out who they are, what they like, and how they want to be perceived by their peers. And the online world can be a difficult, and unforgiving (and unforgetting) place for this all-to-normal pre-adolescent work to happen.

These lessons let students practice these developmental tasks amongst their peers, within the safety of four walls, before they might say or do things online they might regret later.

Author Diana Graber


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