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David Jacobson

Our times seem fraught with danger and difficulty, from the climate crisis to the Coronavirus to political divides amid misinformation campaigns…that is if you believe those things exist and pose actual threats. The differences between those who do and those who do not make it difficult for anyone to be what was once known as a “good citizen.”

Increasingly polarized traditional media outlets and social media channels that lend to vitriol tend to drive our divisions and make “digital citizenship” difficult, too. Enter Tina Monosmith and Melissa Judy, who strive to guide Cadets through the media morass and toward truth.

Monosmith, who serves as the Academy’s Director of Technology, and Judy, who teaches the new Information Literacy course, work to equip students with tactics for healthy, productive use of media and digital tools. Those skills serve Cadets’ current purposes in their academic pursuits and prepare them for leadership in the larger world beyond the Academy.

Monosmith and Judy see to students’ understanding of everything from basic online safety to rigorous research techniques. Judy’s first-quarter curriculum for middle-school students covered such issues as social comparison, emotional contagion (see this companion vocabulary list), catfishing, and cyberbullying. Other topics included finding “online groups that are supportive, instead of toxic,” Judy said, “finding safe spaces, and having a trusted adult, who you feel comfortable sharing with if you come across something inappropriate.”

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This quarter, her class will write research papers, learning along the way about identifying reliable sources, complying with fair use standards, and avoiding confirmation bias. “As a librarian, I already help kids research and find credible sources, making sure they use a critical eye,” Judy said. “So, this part of the class is sort of spun off of my librarian capacity.”

For example, a specific piece of guidance Judy shares with students is, “Don’t just go to Google and click the first link, which is usually Wikipedia. Go deeper. Put a little effort in on the front end and you’ll get more on the back end. I do not discourage using Wikipedia. I think it’s come a long way. But do not cite it in a research paper. You can start there, to get an idea or some background, but click those hyperlinks in the Wikipedia article, click the journal articles in the footnotes, and use those original sources.”

For English-language Wikipedia, Monosmith is one of 40,581,351[2] users who have registered a username and gained Wikipedia editing privileges. When visiting high school classes, she conducts a live walk-through of “editing a Wikipedia page on a topic I know nothing about, so students can see how easy it is” to add to a Wikipedia page, even without expertise, at the risk of spreading misinformation.

To educate students on confirmation bias, Judy directs students to AllSides.com, which offers news coverage via links clearly marked as providing perspectives from the “right,” the “left,” and the “center” on any given topic. “We explore, ‘What’s the bias? Why? Who influences that bias? You have a bias yourself from your parents, your friends, and whether you watch more Fox or more CNN.’ We examine what to look for so they can detect bias.”

Of course, Judy must serve as an example for the students. “Anyone who says they don’t have bias is either lying to themselves or to the person who asked,” she said. “I try my best to recognize my own biases. I can’t say, ‘You should only read this.’ But if I see someone pick up one of the newspapers in the library, I might say, ‘Hey, what about this one?’ to see if they can expand their views. Even if they put it down and say, ‘This is garbage, all lies,’ at least they took the time to read some other viewpoints.”

Monosmith tells students, “Just because Google says something is a source doesn’t mean Google has made sure that it’s a quality source. Look at the copyright of a website to see who’s producing it. For example, if you’re looking at a website as a resource on photography of the United States, and you dig deep and find out the website is owned by a company that has a vested interest in mining, that makes a difference in what you’ll see, as opposed to it being a National Parks website. If students go to the library and ask, Melissa will help them peel back those layers. That’s better than telling students to look only in certain places, because when they go to college nobody’s going to do that for them.”

Beyond skills in research and separating informational wheat from chaff, both Judy and Monosmith emphasize another key element of digital citizenship—students taking great care in what they post. “Your digital footprint is forever,” Judy said. “In middle school, they don’t see the long-term implications of it. You can have your opinions, be upset, feel all the feels, but just remember that people can see whatever you put out there and eventually use it against you at some point.”

Monosmith addresses the matter with older students “in a candid way, unpacking with them the myth of ‘delete’ and the myth of private browsing, things that are like unicorns in that they don’t exist. Kids have to understand that as they prepare to transition out of the Academy and pursue college and careers.”

Monosmith also discusses the potential drawbacks of online gaming. “A lot of students are surprised to learn that gaming companies make addicting products. Students need to know the risks of what they’re consuming. It’s no different than knowing what you’re eating or drinking. You’re putting it into your body through your eyes and by engaging it with your brain.”

The two teachers agree that parents should be aware of and actively involved in their children’s online behavior. “No child needs an online life that is private from their parents,” Monosmith said. “I tell students that nothing they do on our server is private. If we think something unsafe or inappropriate is going on, we’re going to find it and address it.

“Parents should not feel bad about having full access to their child’s computer or phone. That’s fine, perfectly acceptable. Don’t be afraid of parental controls, and don’t be afraid of time limits on screen use. If you’re concerned about something, dig in and see what their internet history is.”

Added Judy: “Know what your children are going online for. Is it TikTok? Are they playing Fortnight? Are they getting into chatrooms they shouldn’t be in? What led them there? Why did they think that was OK? Discussion is better than saying, ‘Absolutely not, you can’t do any of this,’ because then kids shut down.”

And a shut-down child cannot become a good citizen, online or anywhere else.