With the growing prominence of technology and social media in our lives, children of all ages should be made aware of and trained on the ethics of responsible technology usage. Creating a National Digital Ethics Framework for PreK–12 students will enable them to think critically, behave responsibly, and maintain mental health wellness in a digitally transforming world.
Technology is at the forefront of spreading information: news is read on mobile devices, teachers use applications and open-source software in classrooms, and social media defines the lives and status of youth. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased technology use among tweens (8–12 years) and teens, with millions of students using digital entertainment such as TikTok, Instagram, and streaming services. But social media is not the only way students are introduced early to technology; online meetings through applications such as Zoom and Webex became the face of communication, and internet access is required for homework, assignments, and learning in all levels of schooling.
We are not adequately preparing our youth to create a positive digital footprint or have basic internet safety awareness. Implementing internet safety and digital ethics curriculum is imperative, and there is no better time to start than now.
A National Digital Ethics Framework would allow students not just to follow protocols and procedures but also to think critically, behave responsibly, and maintain mental health wellness in a digitally transforming world. This can go further to include concepts like leaving a digital footprint, wherein students engage with technology and media to create content, seek information, communicate ideas, and use open-source platforms in a meaningful and safe manner.
Challenge and Opportunity
Children start interfacing with technology as early as 3–4 years old, and they become increasingly dependent on it through their formative years as digital and social media platforms become ever more indispensable tools for navigating the world. Kids aged 8 to 12 spend an average of six hours per day using entertainment media. By the time they’re teenagers, 95 percent of youth in the United States will have their own mobile device and will, on average, spend almost nine hours a day texting, playing games, posting to social media, watching videos, and more. As tweens and teens move into the middle and high school years, they have ongoing, 24/7 access to friends
and peers via apps and mobile devices, with 45 percent of teens saying they’re online “almost constantly.”
On average, parents allow independent internet usage at 8 years old, and the average age that children sign up for social media is 12.6 years old. In 2021, 59 percent of U.S. tween/teenage students had been cyberbullied or threatened online; we cannot expect a 12-year-old to know how to deal with these dangers on their own.
Despite our increasing reliance on technology, it is not reflected in the learning experiences of PreK–12 students. Digital ethics and internet safety need to be heavily emphasized and implemented in the classroom. This can include simple practices like how to distinguish useful information from spam, using reputable and legitimate sites for references, and understanding copyright issues while quoting information and images from the internet. Digital ethics is a critical 21st-century skill that can be taught alongside computer science courses in schools or in conjunction with coursework that requires students to engage with the internet while seeking information.
Students need increased fluency in information literacy, cyberbullying prevention, online safety, digital responsibility, and emotional well-being. There is currently an internet safety requirement for schools under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) to “educate minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social networking websites, in chat rooms, and cyberbullying awareness.” The requirements state that this education can be held through school assemblies or via presentations provided by Netsmartz. The presentations highlight important topics, but they are not particularly specific or relevant to today’s environment. Simple internet safety such as avoiding clicking on links sent through spam emails, how and when to use the “block” button on social media platforms, and how to create smart passwords are not covered in the current curriculum.
Developing a federal framework will give teachers a clear path to implementation. The vagueness of current internet safety education requirements means that this education is easily overlooked or not presented thoroughly. Integrating this curriculum into CIPA would allow for easier implementation while leveraging existing resources. In order to implement this at the PreK–12 level, teachers will have to be trained on how to deliver this curriculum. Instead of trying to restrict social media usage and heavily monitor or block internet activity, schools should consider this as an opportunity to help students navigate a digitally transforming world in an informed way.
Plan of Action
Recommendation 1. In order to achieve the goal of digital ethics for all learners, the federal government can take a number of steps to keep kids safer in online settings.
- The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) should work with external stakeholders, other federal agencies, and experts to build a National Digital Ethics Framework that outlines the key objectives and standards to teach digital ethics across all grade bands and subjects from PreK to 12th grade.
- The U.S. Department of Education should issue nonregulatory guidance about how to utilize existing grant dollars—particularly from Title II Part A—to support professional development for PreK–12 educators on integrating digital ethics into their classroom content and reference the framework created by NIST.
- The National Science Foundation should allocate a portion of the STEM +C or CS for All grants toward digital ethics and incentivize research on the best tools, resources, and strategies to teach digital ethics. This could include research on how to better embed digital ethics into computer science education.
- The U.S. Department of Education should create a website and toolkit to identify federally funded tools and resources that educators and families could use to support digital literacy and internet safety.
- The U.S. Department of Education should develop best practices and recommendations that can be piloted across classrooms in different regions.
- The U.S. Department of Education should add a question to the Civil Rights Data Collection on whether digital literacy and internet safety are taught in schools.
At a federal level, CIPA is a great avenue to authorize these standards. The act currently applies its internet safety education requirements to “schools and libraries that receive discounts for Internet access through the E-rate program,” which makes certain communications tools affordable for these institutions. Although this does not cover all schools in the United States, schools with less ability to finance technology have the greatest need for digital literacy and internet safety education. By implementing this curriculum under CIPA’s current education suggestions (which are guidelines, not a specific way to conduct internet safety education), then it is likely to be implemented in schools that qualify for CIPA discounts.
Recommendation 2. As the digital ethics framework rolls out, agencies should work with critical stakeholders.
Efforts should directly engage elementary and middle school students and their teachers in designing frameworks, professional learning, and so on. Other stakeholders include state-level legislators that will be responsible for operationalizing and implementing the framework and school district boards that approve learning in each school district/school. Teachers are also key stakeholders, as they will have to receive and implement the information given to them as listed in the standards and may be subject to training.
Recommendation 3. Allocate federal funding to NIST to develop the Digital Ethics Framework and provide temporary staff through fellows with subject matter expertise on how to develop a digital ethics framework.
It will require approximately $1 million to develop the framework. The other actions as part of Digital Ethics for All utilize existing funds but could be bolstered and more quickly executed with the addition of subject matter experts through fellow placements or other staffing mechanisms. It is estimated that one fellow at NSF and one fellow at the U.S. Department of Education would cost approximately $500,000 annually in addition to the above costs.
Having access to a curriculum rooted in digital ethics, internet safety, and technology career paths is essential for students growing up in a society where access to technology is introduced earlier than the concept of computer science. Although computer science curriculum is being widely pushed for at the high school level, we must make sure to educate elementary and middle school youth as well. A National Digital Ethics Framework is not just an advantage—it is imperative in order to protect our students and their future.
Organizations that are developing curriculums centered around digital tools and computer science, such as Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and CSforAll, could be tapped in order to pull topics or ideas from the standards they have already created. Their standards have been implemented in various states, so leveraging their existing resources will make it easier to develop a national curriculum that is suited for approval and implementation.
Subject matter experts are crucial for this initiative. Their perspective will be important to determine which standards have the best chance of being approved at the state and local level and how CIPA’s current curriculum can be modified. Subject matter experts will be fellows from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. The National Institute of Standards and Technology will also be consulted.
Due to the incorporation of this curriculum into CIPA’s current standards, it would be quicker to implement at a federal level. However, if digital ethics cannot be incorporated into CIPA, it could also be addressed at a state level, similar to the initiatives run by CSTA and CSforAll, where their independent curriculum and standards are adopted by states that want to implement technology standards.
In my own experience as a student and as the CEO and founder of Likeable STEM (an educational technology training company), I have observed that students lack resources to teach them about simple topics such as phishing scams, how to write appropriate emails, cybersecurity/password creation, social media profiles, etc. For the past six years, through Likeable STEM, I have taught these crucial topics to elementary, middle, and high school students and created independent curriculum on digital ethics.
Computer science education has been a bipartisan concern, with both the Democratic and Republican Parties introducing educational principles to support STEM growth and computer science career opportunities. However, one problem area would be the current crackdown on educational topics in states such as Florida. Digital ethics does not have roots in either political party, so it should be likely to be supported by both parties.
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