Home Technology The teachers are again “on the ball of the mouth”

The teachers are again “on the ball of the mouth”

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The teachers are again “on the ball of the mouth”

Teachers around the world are taking on the role of explaining to children the dangers of social networks and the subtleties of handling generative AI (photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Three years after the pandemic boom, teachers around the world are once again “on the edge of their seat”: facing the challenge of technology. Today, they are taking charge of children’s digital literacy in the era of generative AI, when educational authorities still have no standards for teaching the subjects in question and private businesses pursue their interests unscrupulously.

The high school classroom might not be the usual place to teach kids about the risks of social media, but that doesn’t stop Jennifer Rosenzweig. Every school year, the 10th graders in her class at New York’s Scarsdale High School watch The Social Dilemma, a 2020 documentary about the harms of social media. The teacher then explains to the youngsters how companies manipulate their algorithms to make platforms addictive. She also organizes joint discussions for teachers and parents, where the dangers of social networks for children are discussed.

The harm of social networks

Rosenzweig argues that the topic is important and should be discussed in all classes. “It’s really important to give students lots of opportunities to talk, think and write about how social media affects their lives,” she said. “Today’s kids were born into a time that’s complicated, overstimulating, and time-consuming — and we’ve handed them a bunch of digital devices without quite knowing what effect that’s going to have.”

The lady is one of a growing number of educators who find themselves on the front lines of the fight to change the way students use social media, both at school and at home. She, like many others, has growing concerns about the impact online services can have on teenagers’ mental health.

In many places around the world, there is already talk of the “big risks” of social media for teenagers. Here and there, experts recommend policymakers push for “digital and media literacy curricula in schools” that help students “recognize, manage and recover from online risks.” This covers the classic cases of online harassment and abuse, but also silent dangers such as “excessive use of social media”.

The attempts by teachers to speak out about the harms of social media come at a time when social media companies promise, in theory, to protect their youngest users, but are reluctant to do so. Private businesses pursue their inexorable interests, and algorithms are ruthlessly bent on pushing consumers of all ages to spend as much screen time as possible.

Digital safety literacy

Where teachers are aware of the problem and trying to do something about it, there is increasing talk about the ways in which children’s participation in social media is affecting their lives. Teachers explain to children mechanisms such as the role of dopamine. They show and explain how it drives people to keep browsing their platforms impatiently, looking for likes and shares, wanting more and more.

Roysmore School in the US is another example of social media safety training. This is considered a key part of students’ digital literacy. The training offers practical steps to deal with the various dangers children can face on social media, from classic bullying and verbal aggression to sexting. A special focus of the program is the topic of how algorithms can push problematic content among young users.

“A lot of students don’t understand most of these dangers,” says Mark Berkman, director of the Social Media Safety Organization, a new program aimed at building overall literacy about online risks for children on social networks. “Adolescents cannot protect themselves from dangers if they do not know what they are.”

“Digital literacy is more than just ‘don’t watch porn’ or ‘stay away from bad sites,'” says Devorah Heitner, author of a book about children and their interactions with the digital world. “It is not that simple. Children also need to understand how algorithms work, how they can react or what to do when they feel threatened, how to recognize irregularities. We need to help children understand all these things”.

Such digital literacy is vital because teenagers need to learn how to properly behave in online communities and how to protect themselves from the risks there. This will be important for them not only in school, but also later, in their realization in professional life.

In high school or before?

But don’t the trainings in question in high schools come too late? Increasingly, attention is paid to the problem even earlier, in junior high school age. Jillian Feldman, principal of Braverman Elementary School in Los Angeles, says the school is working with the Social Media Safety Organization to provide educational discussions for parents of middle schoolers to help them navigate social platforms.

“Our kids are 12 years old, … but they’re already using different platforms with social media elements, with the ability to chat, post and like things in games,” Feldman says. “Our discussions open parents’ eyes and help them set better parameters for children.”

The challenge of generative AI

Similar, but even more challenging, is the battle for appropriate education when it comes to generative AIs such as ChatGPT. They have only gained momentum in the last few months and caught the academic world completely off guard.

Some schools have banned the use of generative AI. Others, on the contrary, encourage the application of AI tools by students. Many teachers say that the use of generative algorithms is inevitable and banning their use does nothing. Instead, the view is being formed that it is now more essential that children are taught exactly how to handle such tools responsibly and effectively.

In more and more places around the world, teachers are looking to introduce ChatGPT into the learning process in one way or another. Each teacher approaches in his own way. Some, for example, encourage children to create essays using the algorithm, and then read and discuss in class what the result of applying the generative software looks like. Other teachers are even more forthright in showing students how to harness the algorithm to useful work, recognizing the risks and pitfalls of the approach.

It is precisely in this area that any rules, concepts and regulations are lacking. There is also a lack of experience to serve as a basis for teaching and using generative AI in the learning process. In this territory, teachers are all alone in the fray – both in terms of the teaching they do and the principles they introduce.

A school without a smartphone

With all this going on, it’s not really surprising that more and more schools around the world are restricting or outright banning the use of smartphones among children during the school day. And while some digital experts would insist that there’s no point in parents and teachers fighting against the ubiquity of the smartphone, educators are finding that it’s also part of the steps to properly understanding the role of digital devices and building a better connection between children and technology.

Rosenzweig and her colleagues at Scarsdale High School have already implemented the “I’m gone all day” rule. It requires students to keep their smartphones in their lockers, turned off, for most of the school day. During free hours, students are allowed to listen to music, podcasts, or meditation apps. However, phones must be put away during class.

The decision was based on high school observations of a direct link between screen time and impaired reading and concentration abilities among students. “Yeah, the kids are sure freaking out when they hear that,” Rosenzweig said. “But I can confirm that when you talk to the students for a few minutes about it, they understand and appreciate that we’re discussing the problem, and they really want help.”

That’s how the “I’m Gone All Day” policy came about, where students leave their smartphones out of sight while in the school building. It is a time when children devote their attention to their real tasks and studies, without being constantly distracted by the passion of having fun through smartphones, and at the same time they are calm because they know that when they finish the important tasks, at the end of the day, again they will be able to play.

Thus, young people get used to distinguishing the time when they should be focused on their educational activities from entertainment – and they do not suffer that their smartphones are not constantly in their hands.

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