The connection between online safety and those amazing kids from Parkland, Florida

By Larry Magid

Like many, I have been deeply moved by the actions of student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shootings on Valentine’s Day.  These teens – some who lost friends and teachers – have been courageous, articulate and passionate in turning their grief into action – demanding that our leaders do everything possible to prevent more tragedies like the one they experienced.

As CEO of ConnectSafely, I’ve been struggling to find ways to support these students and make a connection between the gun safety issues they’re fighting over and the internet and connected technology safety issues that ConnectSafely works on. The more I think about it, the more I realize that there is a connection between the two.

Hugs and picket signs

Obviously, our mission to protect children and teens online does extend to their offline presence as well because there is no real dividing line between online and off, especially for youth. But it goes deeper than that because we have long argued that media literacy and critical thinking are essential to online safety and that student engagement and activism along with supportive adults, are the keys to creating a safe environment in school. And that’s exactly what these students are demonstrating.

These kids are supporting each other not just with hugs but also with picket signs and social activism.  That emotional support they offer to each other is critically important, but soothing words and hugs can’t prevent further attacks. For that we need the types of policy changes that they are demanding in Washington, their own state capitol and other centers of power throughout the country. And it’s starting to pay off. Although not going nearly as far as many students would like, Florida Governor Rick Scott has just called for minimal reforms, such as banning weapon sales to people under 21, clearly in response to the student demands. A lot more should and can done to keep weapons of war from our schools and streets in all 50 states, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Media literacy

As I mentioned, media literacy is an important part of both physical and online safety and we’ve seen incredible media literacy on the part of these youth – not only in their resistance to fake media and their response to vicious and fallacious online attacks, but in the way they have used media to promote their cause. Many of these young people who have grown up making and being in videos posted in social media, are showing that these same skills can be applied to mainstream media as well. The poise, articulation and emotional impact of their TV appearances has been breathtaking. They are already starting to take full advantage of online tools to organize and raise funds for their March for Our Lives rallies on March 24th. 

ConnectSafely works on cyberbullying issues and all types of bullying play a role in school violence, especially in terms of contributing to the alienation that might lead a person to commit a violent crime. But student led and staff led antibullying programs can also help create a culture of kindness and respect at schools. That culture can’t stop a bullet once it’s fired, but it can protect students in many other ways.

Social media and this great generation

The actions of these young people are also further evidence against those claims that smart phones and social media has “destroyed” a generation, as claimed by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge in The Atlantic. Twenge argues that “Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school,” implying that less drinking, dating and driving are somehow a bad thing. But what we are seeing from these Florida students is quite the opposite of childhood stretching well into high school. Instead we’re seeing impressive and mature behavior beyond that of most actual adults.

I not only applaud these young people, I want to stand beside them and support them in anyway possible.

In the words of Bob Dylan,

Come senators, congressmen Please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall. For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled. There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls For the times they are a-changin’