AT&T Teams With Schools to Fight Cyberbullying

Too much of the burden around youth cyberbullying gets put on schools – education, prevention, investigating cases and punishing perpetrators. It’s nice to see any time corporate America gets involved to lend a hand.

att-logoThe Teen Indie Awards for students films were held last night in New York, and showcased the winners in AT&T’s new effort to help schools combat cyberbullying.

The Cyberbullying Film Invitational was promoted and managed by AT&T and Fullscreen and attracted more than 250 student filmmakers from across the country. AT&T handed out awards to the best films, and plans to use footage from the winning films to produce an educational cyberbullying resource for schools. The video will be available, for free, to schools starting in March of next year.

The big winners from the contest:

  • Steilacoom High School, Steilacoom, WA, cash prize of $5,000
  • Mythic Bridge, Brooklyn, NY, cash prize of $3,500
  • Canyon Crest Academy, San Diego, CA, cash prize of $2,500

Other finalists winning $2,500 awards:

  • Grace Church School, New York, NY
  • Communications High School, Wall, NJ
  • Nature Coast Technical High School, Brooksville, FL

Other finalists winning $1,000 awards:

  • Cedar Crest High School, Lebanon, PA
  • Rye Country Day School, Rye, NY
  • Digital Arts and Cinema Technology High School, Brooklyn, NY
  • Pine Crest School, Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • Science and Leadership Academy, Philadelphia, PA

An additional Public Choice award of $5,000 will be given out at a future date. You can vote for your favorite school here (Edit: voting now closed.

According to Marissa Shorenstein, New York State President, AT&T,

“An astounding 8-in-10 teenagers admit to being cyberbullied, or know someone who has been bullied through social media or text. We know this issue is very real for students, schools and families and AT&T wants to help. AT&T congratulates the student participants of our first Cyberbullying Film Invitational. We look forward to incorporating their powerful short films into our national film.”

Thank you and congratulations to all students who were involved, and thanks to AT&T for an outstanding effort to help the youth community. Thanks also for giving these budding filmmakers a stage to show their work.

 

 

 

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Minecraft Education Edition Debuts in June

Minecraft, the hit kids’ video game, has been the opposite of a flash in the plan. Since launching in 2011, Minecraft has attracted more than 100 million users, and kids well into their teens are still playing the game after getting started at 7, 8 or 9 years old. Minecraft users employ available digital tools to build their own “world” so the game is actually more like a Lego set than a traditional video game. As such, it might remain popular for a very long while without having to release new versions.

Microsoft acquired the platform in 2014, probably because a couple of things were becoming obvious:

  • Minecraft, a huge hit with kids of all ages, is a safer, more wholesome alternative to games featuring adult themes including violence, gore and sexual imagery
  • More than just a game, Minecraft is a great educational tool

Now Microsoft has announced that it is bringing a version of the game to schools. Minecraft Education Edition is optimized for teachers and students, and will be available beginning in June.

This isn’t Microsoft/Minecraft’s first foray into the classroom. Last November, Microsoft introduced a coding tutorial for kids in conjunction with Code.org.

Microsoft Education will offer a free and a paid version according to an article at Venture Beat. The free version will reportedly be close to what is currently available, but the new paid version will allow a whole class – up to 40 kids – to play in the same Minecraft world at the same time. Teachers will have access to lesson plans and a mentoring community. The mentoring program will enable teachers who are familiar with the program to collaborate with new teacher users.

It’s an ideal situation when a game that kids actually like playing can be a valuable tool in the classroom. Engagement can be instantaneous and very sticky. Well done, Microsoft.

 

 

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A Look at the Whisper App’s Unsafe “Schools” Feature

We’ve written more than once in the past about the Whisper app, and how it’s not the safest place online for teens. In a post from last year titled “Whisper app is enabling dangerous teen behavior”, we covered issues such as self-harm that have attracted teens on the app, and not in an entirely positive way.

Whisper started out as an anonymous, photo-based app where users could post text messages superimposed over images, typically secrets or confessions. Whisper has location functionality, but unlike Yik Yak, location is not necessarily a key feature. Earlier this year, Whisper rolled out a “Schools” feature that makes each user’s location more critical, especially for some young users.

The way the app works for browsing is that users can search by term or category using the “Discover” tab, or can browse posts sorted by “Latest”, “Nearby”, “Popular” and now “Schools”.

We decided to search for our local high school, Hunterdon Central Regional High School, which is a couple of miles away. You can see below how easy it is to connect to a school’s feed after tapping on the “Schools” tab, whether you are a student there or not.

whisper-schools

We were easily able to sign up for the school’s feed, and scroll through posts presumably made mostly or exclusively by our “fellow students”. We’ve highlighted a few of them below.

whisper-unsafe-teens

  • In the first post, the user claims to be a 15-year old looking for anonymous romance. He posts his Kik messaging user name publicly, which we strongly advise against.
  • The second post appears to be a user looking for someone interested in phone sex. This could be anyone.
  • whisper-weed-dealerThe third is someone looking to have weed delivered to her (?) home. She lists the country road on which she lives, and presumably is willing to give her complete address to a stranger.

The image at right is one of the responses to the third image.

The Whisper app hasn’t been in the news much lately, which is probably a good thing as far as parents are concerned. Yik Yak appears to be the anonymous app of choice for kids who are up to no good. A key difference between how users post on the two apps leads us to believe that parents should be concerned about teens using Whisper as well. Here’s why.

Yik Yak’s notoriety is based mostly on the fact that it has been used for dozens of school threats, many of which involved in police involvement and arrests. It appears that rogue Yik Yak users favor the app to cause trouble (threats, harassment etc.), whereas Whisper users prefer that app when looking to get into trouble (casual sex, drug deals etc.).

Whisper has critical mass and is bigger than Yik Yak – an estimated 10 million users, vs. 3.5 million for Yik Yak. Whisper’s age limit is 17, but just like most apps, they are powerless to enforce that limit – you can post that you’re 15-years old and nothing happens. Since Whisper is anonymous, it is impossible for parents to effectively keep track of what their teens are doing on there. Whisper is likely to grow in popularity at schools, and as such we reiterate the warning we’ve given parents before – it’s a good idea to keep teens off the Whisper app altogether.

 

 

 

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The Onion Takes On Cyberbullying In Schools

Satire site The Onion this week published a tongue in cheek infographic on schools and cyberbullying, and in doing so revealed that whoever wrote it has a profound understanding of the challenges around what schools can and should be doing about it.

The headline, and the question asked in the fake poll, is “Should schools be able to discipline students for cyberbullying?”

the-onion-cyberbullying

Laws and policies vary from state to state in terms of defining the school’s role in cyberbullying – i.e. what the schools have to do. Here in New Jersey, schools are required to investigate all reported bullying incidents, so option 1 above does not apply for some. Let’s hope that nothing is being swept under the rug.

Options 2 and 3 are clearly jokes, but resonate in a weird way. On 2, many (most?) acts of cyberbullying go unpunished, and on 3, while some bullies take pains to cover their tracks, it’s obvious that in no way should a school be teaching that.

The 4th is an over-the-top joke aimed at parents implying that they condone bullying.

The 5th is a sad commentary on what is actually going on. There is huge pressure on schools to get everything done as it is.

Finally, the 6th is the most interesting in our view. We agree that parents should bear most of the responsibility when it comes to cyberbullying prevention and dealing with the aftermath constructively. In a perfect world, cyberbullying would be a family issue, not a school issue. Unfortunately, statistics show that most parents are unaware that cyberbullying is happening, even when their child is the victim.

There will always be cyberbullies, and either preventing cyberbullying or keeping the damage that it does to a minimum requires a team effort:

Upstanders not bystanders – Kids who witness cyberbullying can stick up for the victim or support him rather that laughing or joining in.

Engaged, supportive parents – The best chance parents have to hear when their child is being cyberbullied is to let children know ahead of time that you will be unconditionally supportive.

Schools doing what they can – Of course, educators are people. They want to help but they can’t do it all.

 

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NJ Schools Must Implement Electronic Communications Policies

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill into law on April 24th that will require each school district in the state to create and oversee a set of guidelines for electronic communications between teachers and students. These guidelines need to be in place by mid August, before the start of next school year.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has taken a first step, by issuing a draft reference manual to help school districts craft their own set of rules, specifically referencing cell phones, email and social media. The highlights are as follows:

  • School employees may not “friend” students on networking sites without written approval of the school principal
  • All electronic communication with students must be through the district’s computer and telephone systems
  • All electronic communication sent by coaches and extracurricular advisors to students must be sent to all participants
  • School employees will not give out their private cell phone or home phone numbers to students without approval of the principal

Within these recommended guidelines, some types of communication are (obviously) not permitted, including sexual content, content related to drugs, alcohol, illegal activities and anything in violation of school policies.

teach-social-mediaMost of that seems like common sense, except the idea that social media connections between students and teachers need be pre approved, which means that they aren’t going to happen at all if policies are implemented in this way. There is some irony here – in January NJ passed a law that will make it the first state in the nation to mandate social media education for middle school students. Teachers will be instructing on social media use but prevented from actually using it with students.

To our mind, a better solution would be to require educators to use school-administered social media accounts rather that their personal accounts, as has been required by recently enacted New York City school electric communications regulations. Rather than connecting with students as Facebook.com/Bob.Smith the teacher could use Facebook.com/OurHS_Mr_Smith.

Consider the following quote from the nj.com article linked above:

The problem is not the interaction but the improper interaction between people. This is where the line should be drawn. Technology is the way of the future. Limiting its use in any way is basically limiting education.

Keeping teachers’ personal lives separate from their professional ones is a good idea. Teaching social media while at the same time prohibiting teacher/student interaction on any social networks seems likely to fall short of the desired mark.

 

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