Five tips for productive student conversations about life online 

High school students looking at laptop

Helping students make good choices online is part of the job for many teachers, especially now that digital devices are a core component of the classroom. However, knowing what to say can be challenging for teachers who may not have the same relationship with the online world their students do.  

Even if you are not a digital native, you can give students the guidance they need to approach their time online responsibly. Here are five tips for having productive conversations about online life: 

1. Understand the importance of online life. 

For students, online life is not separate from real life. The two worlds blur together in such a way that what happens online affects what happens in real life and vice versa. Just as the “real” social world has its own rules, challenges and consequences, online worlds operate based on a set of expectations. Violating or misunderstanding these expectations can have ramifications that affect a student’s friendships, family relationships, and even schoolwork. That is why it is important for teachers to address online life with the gravity it deserves. For students, it is not a game or an escape from reality — it is an important part of their real lives.  

2. Help students see the importance of their digital footprint.  

Social media activity, browsing history, personal websites, online subscriptions, photos and videos — all form a student’s “digital footprint,” or the trail left by their online activities. Students who grew up using the internet are often less discerning about their online activities and how they relate to their real-world identities. Help students become more mindful of their digital footprint by asking them to think through all the places their information exists online. Ask them to privately think of 2-3 social posts, photos, or other pieces of online information they now regret and to consider how they and others might view their current activities in the future. 

3. Teach students how to speak up for each other. 

Cyberbullying is an unfortunate fact of online life that many students will encounter in one way or another. Help students understand they can play an important role in reducing the harm of cyberbullying. Not all students will feel comfortable confronting a bully directly, but there are other ways they can use their voices, including reporting the incident to a trusted adult or their teacher, refusing to take part in the bullying, or reaching out to the person being bullied to offer kindness and encouragement. 

4. Ensure students know you are a trusted adult. 

There will be times when students will not know how to navigate a situation they are facing in their online life. They may not feel comfortable approaching a family member, particularly if they have done something that may violate their rules. It’s important for teachers to be approachable and friendly when giving students guidance about online life. As you are leading class-wide conversations about the digital world, ask questions and listen carefully to understand the mindset and reason for their behavior. When offering advice, avoid judgment and opt for openness and understanding. If a student knows they can come to you for non-judgmental guidance, they will be more likely to approach you in a moment of crisis.  

5. Focus on the positive, too. 

Having an online life can come with an array of challenges and safety considerations, but it also delivers a wide range of benefits. Take equal opportunity to focus on the positive side of online life. Give students time to talk about the things they enjoy doing online. Provide an open invitation for students to speak up about new digital apps they have tried that have helped them accomplish academic or recreational tasks. It is important to remember that most students are primarily focused on the positive aspects of their online lives, so talking about those upsides is a great way to open a dialogue. 

Leveraging technology to help students approach online life 

Many schools have begun offering digital citizenship training as part of their computer science curriculum, STEM clubs, core subject coursework, or through special assemblies and workshops. Teachers who are not providing official digital citizenship training can still support this learning by familiarizing themselves with the nine elements and five key competencies of digital citizenship and incorporating those best practices in their classrooms. 

One way to ensure students are practicing good digital citizenship is to point out when students demonstrate a key competency online, such as being inclusive or being alert and safety conscious. Many students need hands-on practice to master the ideas of “netiquette,” the accepted rules for respectful online engagement.  

LanSchool enables teachers to monitor online behavior as they work in class. If a teacher notices a student is — or is not — demonstrating good digital citizenship or netiquette, they can send a discreet chat message to that student or the entire class without disrupting learning time.  

LanSchool also helps teachers give students the guard rails they need to stay engaged in the task at hand by limiting which websites and applications students can visit. Educators can set and remove restrictions instantly for any or all students in their classes. For example, one student may be finished with their work and allowed to watch YouTube, while the others remain restricted until they have completed the assignment. Having these guard rails in place is a great way to demonstrate and reinforce good online habits. 

Online life is part of life 

The distinction between real life and online life will only become more blurred as emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented/virtual reality grow more accessible and useful. Many jobs of the future will rely on the ability to navigate and master tools of the online world.  

Training students to operate professionally, competently, and comfortably in their online lives is a key component for success not only in school but in their future careers. Teachers who facilitate open-minded, high-quality conversations about online life give students the tools they need to self-examine their relationship with the digital world, avoiding more of the downsides of online life and unleashing the benefits. 


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