Over the past week, the topic of digital identity has been a main focus throughout our class discussions. How we are represented and perceived online directly impacts who we are and that is why it is important to understand the significance of creating and maintaining a positive online identity early on in life.
Today’s youngest generation has grown up with technology and social media their entire lives and therefor rely heavily on it. Historically speaking, many educators have argued that this reliance and increase of time spent online is unhealthy and detrimental to youth. I remember when I was in grade 7 and the use of cellphones and social media was off limits in the classroom. We were allowed to use our phones during breaks and at lunch, but if we were to use them in class they would be confiscated for the day. The opportunity to work in the computer lab was something exciting for us because it was something we all wanted to do yet were rarely given the chance to. In general, teachers viewed technology as a distraction for students. Fast forward to my final year of high school and things were completely different. While we were not allowed to text or sit on social media during class, we were encouraged to use technology whenever possible. Each classroom in my school had now been equipped with iPads, laptops, and/or tablets. Students were permitted to use their phones for educational purposes. Rather than fighting the rise of technology, teachers had began to embrace it and everything it had to offer.
As suggested in Nathan Jurgenson’s article “The IRL Fetish”, the desire to separate ones online and offline self is not only unnecessary, but also unrealistic. The idea being described by Jurgenson outlines the belief that all those with a digital identity can never truly be offline. Whether we are starring at our screens or not, the internet is constantly in motion and that is something we can’t fully control.
Due to this lifelong exposure to technology, many young students tend to overlook and disregard the dangers and possible downfalls they may face when it comes to their digital identity. Student’s are unaware or unconcerned with how to properly conduct themselves online and this is where we as teachers need to step in and provide guidance.
Often times teachers are given the impression that they shouldn’t have an online presence or if they do, it should be deeply hidden. This is not completely accurate. The truth is, teachers are people too and just like anyone else, they have the right to their own social media accounts and online identity. Recognizing that it’s okay to be online is the first step in supporting students in developing their online presence through leading by example. While it is true that we as educators must be cautious with what we share online, we have both the right and responsibility to be have an active online identity. By doing so, we can teach students about what is safe to share, how permanent the internet truly is, and where to draw the line.
What To Teach Our Students About Digital Identity:
- What you post online NEVER truly disappears: with apps like Snapchat, many people are under the impression that the images and words they send to others or post online disappear. This is not true at all! As outlined in Jon Ronson’s TedTalk titled “How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life”, the internet NEVER forgets and that is why you must be sure to think things through before making any choices. Ronson uses Justine Sacco as an example of an individual who made one inappropriate post that will follow her for the rest of her life.
- You can’t control everything, but you can some things: the truth is that you cannot control everything that people find online about you. Whether information is true or not, there is bound to be things online about you that you don’t want other to know or think about you. While this isn’t something we can always control, what we can control is what we put out there. We need to teach students that it’s good to be active online and share positive things about who they are, their goals, etc. Have the desire to fill the internet with so many positive things about yourself that they take over anything negative or false!
- Not everything you see online is real: in today’s era of photoshop and filters, the majority of images shared online are not “real”. Any insecurities can be masked so easily and shared as being natural. This leads to poor self-esteem, depression, and body issues, specifically in youth, because they feel that they are incapable of achieving the image that others do. This sense of distortion is addressed in an article by CNN titled “Instagram: Worst Social Media App For Young People’s Mental Health”. It is also important to note that the lives people portray themselves as having online may be nothing like their actual lives.
Split Image is a powerful true story about a University student named Madison Holleran who shocked the world by taking her own life. Madison’s online presence showed a happy, healthy girl who was enjoying life, yet her reality was nothing like this. She created an image to hide the darkness in her life and that is something that student’s and adults both need to understand occurs.
While all the things mentioned above are extremely important, the issue that I feel is the most dominant in today’s society in terms of technology and student’s digital identities is cyberbullying. This is something we have all heard about thousands of times. We have been teaching our students not to do it for as long as we can remember, yet it still occurs. Why? There may be many reasons behind this but the most obvious one that I can determine is a lack of understanding of the impact cyberbullying has on others.
Monica Lewinsky delivered a inspiring TedTalk titled “The Price of Shame”, in which she addresses the impact that shame and online humiliation can have on a person. She recalls her experience and how it impacted the way others viewed her, as well as how she viewed herself. People who didn’t even know her were insulting, judging, and harassing her online and there was no escaping them. She had no where to run, nowhere to hide. Her life had been turned upside down and there was nothing she could do about it. Sadly, she is only one of the many victims of such acts. Cyberbullying is on the rise and is impacting today’s youth more than ever before.
The impacts of cyberbullying varies and that is why it is important for teachers to educate their students on the implications of their actions. The impacts of cyberbullying are extensive. Depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, many cases go as far as ending in suicide. One case that most students are familiar with is that of Amanda Todd, a young girl who made a video and took her own life due to cyberbullying.
While Amanda’s story is well-known, there are so many other people out there who faced the same fate and received no recognition. To think that the pain and suffering they felt was so bad that their only escape from the bullying was to escape from life itself is devastating.
When we sit behind a computer and judge others, it’s easy to forget that there are real people behind those images and stories. These real people have feelings and lives on their own that are often overlooked by those judging them. As Lewinsky stated, we need compassion to combat this online shame and humiliation. It is vital for teachers to do everything in their power to put an end to this vicious cycle through educating their students.
What Individual Teachers Can Do:
- We cannot fully protect our students from the dangers of online, but we can provide them with opportunities to develop and contribute to their digital identities by using technology wherever and whenever possible.
- We can show students how their words can impact others and the importance of thinking before they post.
- Above all, we can be someone that our students can look up to and learn from by providing them with the tools and knowledge they need to create positive online identities.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.” -George Bernard Shaw