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The Internet: The Scariest Place In the World

Helping Our Students Navigate the Dangers of Intentional and Inadvertent Cyberbullying

I saw this T-shirt being sold to me by my algorithms the other day that said, “Of the weirdest things I’ve found on the internet, my favorite is you.” I like the quip for its pithiness, but also because it reminds us of the double-edged nature of the web. I thought to myself, the internet, as anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book Sapiens, solved humanity’s problem of distance and separation, but it has exacerbated our issues with isolation and detachment. Telecommunication of the modern age allows us to revel in communities as mundane as cat video lovers, or as erudite as code-swapping developers improving “open” applications and platforms. But, it’s also a place where people hide behind the partition of anonymity to sling hurtful accusations and disparaging remarks, often fueled by ignorance.

For those of us who have come to know and appreciate both the good and the bad, navigating the internet can be tricky; but for students who know no other reality, existing and communicating on the internet can prove stressful, challenging and, in the worst cases, downright harmful. Let’s think about this, and explore how encouraging connections between our pupils and their peers abroad could open up certain sinkholes and quagmires that we ourselves may overlook, but could prove difficult terrain for them.

Oh, and, despite all this reflection born from scrolling past an ad, I did not actually purchase the T-shirt.

Potential Incidents

Let’s get some tangential hypotheticals on our radar. I’m not talking about the stuff we hear about every day, either, because your students will likely be polite, courteous, and respectful to one another during the course of your virtual exchange. But, and not to scare you, let’s think about the scariest potential incidents that could occur, and then quickly identify how these disasters could be avoided with a little forethought.

1. Identity Impersonation:

Incident: In an asynchronous video exchange, a student from the foreign class impersonates a student from the local class, posting hurtful comments or misinformation.

Strategy: Unlikely, right? But, if a kid really wanted to get at a classmate, embarrass someone, or even just play a practical joke, this could actually happen! That’s why you should encourage students to use unique identifiers (like special virtual badges or avatars) to distinguish classmates. Teachers can cross-verify student identities with a brief, personalized introduction video at the beginning of the exchange. And, don’t forget, if you’re on the secure Level Up Village platform, you could always have your settings programmed so that you can view your students’ videos before approving them for public display, just to make sure everyone is who they say they are, and no shenanigans are happening!

2. Out-of-Context Comments:

Incident: A harmless comment is taken out of context and used to mock or ridicule a student in the foreign class.

Strategy: Just out of the discomfort that comes from meeting new people, the immature have been known to use humor in order to connect. And, especially if there are factors at play like a difference in linguistic abilities, this could really become a strategy for one of your students to get a laugh or break the tension. In light of how common this occurrence might be, I’d suggest implementing a clear communication guideline emphasizing empathy. Encourage your students to ask for clarification if a comment seems ambiguous, fostering a culture of understanding and reducing misunderstandings. As I’ve written before, genuine curiosity can really diffuse a potential tinderbox situation.

3. Selective Participation:

Incident: Some students consistently exclude others from group discussions or collaborative activities, causing feelings of isolation.

Strategy: This happens all the time, whether the class is all same-sex, or in a co-ed environment. Kids can be mean, and being exclusive often gives them the feeling of control in a social situation; in their mind, if they’re allowed to delineate the pecking order, they must be on top of it. To prevent this cliquishness among your students, rotate group assignments frequently, ensuring that every student interacts with different peers. This is one perk of Level Up Village’s classes, because your students will be responding to several members of the partner class, as opposed to being paired with just one virtual penpal for the duration of the course. Also, creating structured activities where each student’s input is vital, and it’s another way to minimize the chance of exclusion. We’re tribal in nature, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also have the potential to learn to work together with new people in different situations.

4. Invasive Questions:

Incident: Students ask personal or invasive questions, making others uncomfortable during video exchanges.

Strategy: Mostly, this one can spring from a permissive atmosphere and students feeling overly comfortable; however, I’ve seen kids do this with a slightly-too-inquisitive questioning tone that made me second guess their motivations. Establish a discussion protocol that emphasizes respect and understanding, and you’ll be able to set the bumpers up for your students and keep their conversations in the safe lane. Teachers can moderate discussions, ensuring that questions are relevant and respectful. Using the discussion topics provided in your course module should help to avoid inappropriate queries.

Closing Thoughts

“Kids say the darndest things”; “Boys will be boys”; and “From the mouth of babes.” We do a lot in our culture to admit and excuse how hurtful young people can be to one another with their words, and the anonymity and perceived distance created by the internet has not necessarily helped this trend. You, the educator, of course, are doing your best to expand your student’s horizons through the connective magic of telecollaboration; however, your students may come with other intentions, and whether it’s ignorance, malevolence, or social awkwardness that spurs on their behavior, they could derail the experience by consciously, or unconsciously, hurt one another through their words and actions. By incorporating these innovative strategies and being mindful of potential incidents, you—and the many other teachers delving into the excitement of virtual exchanges—can create a positive, inclusive, and respectful environment in asynchronous video exchanges, fostering meaningful connections between students while preventing cyberbullying.