By Carol Todd, teacher, Coquitlam
Carol Todd is the Co-ordinator for Supportive Technologies and Digital Literacy (with a focus on digital citizenship and awareness) in School District 43 (Coquitlam). Carol is also a global advocate for antibullying, digital safety, mental health, cyber-abuse prevention, and gender-based exploitation prevention. On October 10, 2012, Carol’s daughter Amanda died by suicide after relentless exploitation online and cyber-bullying. Carol has committed herself to being the voice that Amanda never had and continuing the important conversation that Amanda started with her now widely viewed video detailing her experiences and feelings. Carol’s overall goal is to encourage everyone to have continued conversations that foster positive mental health and digital wellness.
When speaking to educators, parents, and kids in classrooms, I often hear a lot of questions about how to approach the topic of digital awareness. They want to know more about the issues with social media, cyber-bullying, self-worth, self-image, consent, privacy, and screen time. The list goes on. But along with information about the issues, they want solutions. What can they do? What are the most trusted resources? How do they prioritize digital well-being in their everyday lives?
Based on my personal experiences and what I’ve learned from all the amazing adults, youth, and children I’ve spoken to in the nine years since Amanda’s passing, I narrowed down the action items to the five most important. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. But to me, doing these five things on an ongoing basis can help to improve your digital health significantly.
When it comes to cyber-awareness and digital health and well-being, knowledge really is power. Educated adults can better navigate their own digital lives and model healthy behaviours for the kids in their lives. They are also better equipped to have hard, uncomfortable conversations.
It’s important to identify reputable sources of information (like those included in the resources list when you scan the QR code on the next page). Visit these sites often. Sign up for the newsletters. Subscribing to Google Alerts with applicable key words including cyber-safety, digital wellness, and cyber-bullying is also a great way to stay up to date. You don’t need to read everything. Pick and choose what you read, but at least you’re accessing this type of news regularly. The context is changing every single day, so it’s important to be familiar with the latest news.
With your students (and with your own children), introduce times to read news articles and talk about “real vs. not real” news. Review how to look at facts and determine if they are plausible. Doing activities or taking online safety quizzes are great, productive uses of screen time.
Have open conversations
It can be scary to talk about the darker side of the internet, but these conversations are vital. If you feel uncomfortable talking to children about sexual health literacy and personal safety issues common in the digital world, I recommend practising the conversations with other adults.
Allow yourself to be honest and vulnerable with the kids in your life. Explain to them that these topics can be hard to talk about, but stress the importance of muddling through the discomfort together. Today, we have to normalize these types of conversations.
With kids, I also stress the importance of having a circle of safe adults in their lives. Sometimes kids find it hard to talk to their parents about difficult topics. This could be due to cultural, language, or religious reasons. It could also be due to the relationship dynamic that exists between the child and their parents. And sometimes parents just refuse to talk about these topics or struggle to be calm communicators and listeners. It’s essential kids have other safe adults in their lives they can openly talk to.
“No” can be a really hard thing to say, even if everything inside you wants to say it. We have a lot of concerns around the word no. For instance, if we say no, maybe people will like or love us less. We may feel bad, or guilty, or worry that we’re making too big of a deal about something.
For kids, it can be hard to determine what is and isn’t okay. Setting boundaries for something that is unknown or unfamiliar is especially hard. I try to help students understand how their bodies react to certain feelings. I ask kids, “If you are online and someone is asking you questions, how does it make you feel? Does your stomach get tight? Does your chest get heavy?” These are sensations they can identify. Then I help them associate and name feelings that are typical of those sensations, such as anxiety, worry, concern, or fear. By understanding and validating their feelings, they can learn to trust themselves in identifying what is and is not okay. Practising this with a safe adult gives kids the experience they need to honour themselves with boundaries.
Share your experiences
If Amanda knew that she wasn’t alone, she would probably be alive today. Nobody is alone. Kids need to know there is always someone out there who can help them with whatever problem or situation they are having.
The same is true for adults. If you are having any negative experiences online or offline, it’s important to connect with people who can support you without judgment and can hold space and listen. Keeping negative emotions or experiences in only strengthens the shame and spirals the bad feelings. Even though at first it may feel hard or embarrassing to open up, in the end, it’s a positive thing to ask for help if you are struggling.
Develop a personal digital wellness action plan. What are my goals? How am I going to achieve them? Who is going to help me? Where do I go if I’m stuck? Digital wellness aligns with physical and mental wellness. So, it’s important to include things like eating well, sleep, physical activity, and finding balance for screen time in your action plan. Being digitally well is a lifestyle choice. It’s an ongoing awareness. It’s a value system that starts when kids are really young and gets reinforced consistently throughout life.
Digital technology is all around us and it’s not going away. This generation of kids is growing up surrounded by it. It’s all they know. And it’s okay, too, that sometimes kids know more than us about how the digital world works. Even in our digitally connected world, there is still room for board games, outdoor activities, and conversations around the dinner table. Adults must model healthy behaviours and habits. Kids learn from what they see. Showing them how digital wellness comes alive with awareness, boundaries, and open conversations will go a long way to helping them understand and take care of their own digital health.
Visit linktr.ee/DigitalWellnessResources or for digital wellness resources for educators.