Golden Rule of the 21st CenturyMost discussions about keeping kids safe online center around two issues:

  • With the rapid development and dissemination of digital technology, how can we stay ahead of what our students are doing?
  • What controls are available to prevent students from visiting inappropriate sites?

These are reasonable questions, but they ignore two important facts. First, technology is changing faster than educators can possibly keep up with it. After all, the day we learn how to use a cell phone, a new app, or a new control program, our students are learning how to use them (or work around them) too. And, it’s almost guaranteed that by the time you discover a new website you don’t want your students to visit, they will have already been there!

I believe we are asking the wrong questions when we discuss digital safety for students. We  should focus on how to communicate personal accountability and awareness when using digital tools and technologies.  Instead of trying to prevent our youth from doing the wrong thing after we hand them technology, we should communicate to them the importance of digital accountability and responsibility before we hand them any digital tool.

If you’re wondering why so many young people--and adults for that matter--are getting themselves into trouble online, the answer is actually quite simple: valuable and necessary digital devices are widely available, but there has been little effort to develop a uniform social norm or guideline for their responsible and safe use.      

So, here's the right question to ask: How do we prevent current – and future – self-inflicted injuries when using any digital device? The answer is simple: by making people understand that they should be prepared for any action they take with a digital device to become both Public and Permanent™, because in one second, it can be.

Digital activity is Public and Permanent™

Parents would never think to leave children alone with matches or burning candles before teaching them about the dangers of fire. Isn’t the goal to discuss the birds and the bees before an adolescent is sexually active? Don’t we teach our children about “stranger danger” before we take them to the mall? So why is technology any different?

As we continue to work and play in a largely digital environment, our global village requires a uniform social norm or golden rule.  We must establish appropriate values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors for responsible digital decision making in our rapidly evolving digital world. This very simple, but effective 21st -century golden rule is: “Digital activity is public and permanent. By understanding and employing this simple preventative concept, you and your students can operate with a Digital Consciousness™.

Simply put, a Digital Consciousness means having a mindset that your digital actions are public and permanent. This does not mean that every single keystroke you make or picture you take will absolutely show up on the front page of a major website, an adult website, the computer of a criminal, or on the news. However, having and maintaining the mindset that “I am prepared for the digital world and future generations to know what I am about to do with my digital device” helps us pause and think before we act. It reminds us that it is possible for our digital actions to be seen by the world for generations.

A digital consciousness is the foundation for informed and responsible use of all current and future technology, application, forum, or form. As I illustrate in my book, “Public and Permanent: The Golden Rule of the 21st Century” (2011: Youth Light), poor digital decision making starts in the mind – it is the cause of almost all digital mistakes. Abusing digital technology creates trends, such as sexting and cyber bullying, which are the effects of poor digital choices. And, as is often the case, mistakes have consequences – the chain reaction of negative emotions, events, and uncomfortable situations that can at the very least be embarrassing, or at worst, are illegal.

A sad but true story

A  19-year-old Wisconsin teenager was convicted of using Facebook to blackmail classmates into sex between spring 2007 and fall 2008. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for creating a Facebook profile belonging to a nonexistent teenage girl. He used the profile to convince more than 30 of his male classmates to send in nude photos or videos of themselves. The teen then threatened to post the photos or videos of his victims - teen boys - on the Internet if they didn't engage in some sort of sexual activity with him. At least seven of his victims said they were coerced into sex acts, which were documented with a cell phone camera. Want to read more about this? Just enter “Teen gets 15 years for Facebook blackmail” into a search engine.

This is just one example where poor digital choices by the victims led to devastating consequences that affected an entire school and community.  If the victims began with a mindset of public and permanent, they may never have taken and sent those pictures.

This story, and tens of thousands of others just like it, is a clear example of why we cannot eliminate each new negative digital trend by reacting to it with surveys, safety tips, and statistics. Reacting to digital issues is like placing a band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound. Wouldn’t it be wiser to focus on preventing the injury?

A preventive mindset can reduce the number of negative, life-altering, and sometimes tragic consequences that stem from poor digital decisions. Certainly, abuses will occur, but we can still give everyone the ability to evaluate risk versus reward. But eliminating the excuse of “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t think” will make our digital world much safer.

Be vigilant and stay ahead of evolving technologies

It's easy for most of us to think that we’ll never be a victim of our own poor digital decision-making. After all, we’re not sexting and don’t plan to blackmail friends who post something they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, we could be victimized by the digital decisions of others. Just ask Olympic Gold Medal-winner Michael Phelps who was suspended from competition for three months after a digital photo surfaced of the Olympic champion inhaling from a marijuana pipe.  The digital photo was taken and disseminated by somebody else at the party, but Phelps ultimately suffered the consequence.  By unconditionally using digital technology responsibly—and insisting on the same standards from those around us--we can protect ourselves and our families from the negative consequences that often accompany abuse.

I urge you to remind your students about the Phelps story or to tell them about the Wisconsin student mentioned earlier. I guarantee that some of them will conclude that these stories ended well because Phelps eventually returned to competition and the perpetrator went to prison. But you need to remind them that every digital photo placed online still lives online, even if someone is in jail or the victim has returned to a normal life.

We can’t wait for episodes of sexting, cyber bullying, and sextortion to surface before we work to change attitudes and practices. A proactive approach is key, especially when we consider the rapid pace with which technology evolves. Digital technology as a whole is like water in a river --never static, constantly flowing, and changing. How we use digital tools will continue to change, and it will likely change in ways we can’t even imagine. New products will be developed. As adults we remember life before cell phones. Even teenagers may recall life before cell phones; they certainly knew a time before cell phones were used for texting. And there’s no reason for anyone to believe that that the pace of this digital change will slow down any time soon.

Focusing on all the ways our “private” content can become public is like trying to stop the flow of water in that river. At best this effort is overwhelming; at worst, it’s impossible. In other words, instead of worrying about the privacy settings on your Facebook account (and who could have imagined Facebook only a few years ago), you should worry about what you post. If you know that you have not posted words or pictures that could come back to haunt you, then privacy settings become less important. The hackers and the sextortionists have no power over you if you have given them no material with which to work.

Many of you are using computers in the classroom; some of you may even be using cell phones. We routinely warn students about dangerous behaviors or negligent acts that can change or even ruin their lives—drinking and driving, plagiarizing the work of others, for example. Now it’s time that we all become digital ambassadors who instill the concept of Public and Permanent™ in the minds of our students, as well as our families and friends.

Thanks to today’s powerful tools of communication, we are each writing our own online history and creating our own legacy. Tell your students that if they employ a Digital Consciousness™, what they leave behind for your future generations to know about them is entirely in their hands.

Richard Guerry is an award-winning author who has spoken to over 500 audiences since June 20 ranging from students and educators to parents and law enforcement across the country. The primary focus of Guerry’s powerful live events is to debunk the prevalent myths regarding privacy and digital technology, to expose the digital black market and other malicious activities, and to provide users of all ages with all the information they need to arm themselves to make good digital decisions, thereby greatly reducing their  risk of becoming a victim of a cyber-crime or exploitation.

Guerry is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication (IROC2). Learn more at www.iroc2.org. Contact Guerry at richard@iroc2.org.