In a recent, much-discussed article in The National Review, Christine Rosen argues for legally enforceable age requirements for consent to social media use, set at a minimum of sixteen. Her argument centers around the well-documented risks and harms of social media use among teens: its addictive nature, its devastating negative impacts on mental health, and its insidious effects on the social fabric of teenage lives.
Precisely because of the dangers Rosen highlights, I do not allow any of my children to use social media platforms prior to age thirteen. And while I am more than happy to entertain a future in which social media is more heavily regulated than it is now, I also recognize that an interim strategy of banning social media altogether has its downsides. The social world of teenagers has moved onto these platforms, and teens can end up feeling unduly isolated and ostracized from their peers when they are unilaterally cut off from the online spaces where, increasingly, social plans are made and executed and bonds are formed. So while I heavily restrict and monitor my teens’ use of social media apps, I have not banned them.
However, I do recognize the need to teach my teens how to interact appropriately online—to clearly communicate what sort of activity is forbidden, what is encouraged, and what is open to personal creativity and interpretation. In short, I try to teach my teens to be not only cyber-savvy and cyber-safe, but also cyber-wise—by which I mean exercising good practical judgment in the challenging circumstances of the online spaces they need to navigate in our digital age.
But I shouldn’t be left to do this on my own. Parents, after all, only have so much influence and control. Schools must also take seriously their duty to teach students how to navigate the online world in positive ways. More specifically, schools must not only have intentional instruction about the inherent dangers and risks of social media use, but must also develop curricula that model how to interact online in ways that meet their general standards and expectations of their student’s social lives. Such an education is important because, even if we raise and enforce a legal age of consent for social media use in the future, teens still need to learn how to interact in complex online spaces. It will not come to them naturally or effortlessly. Like any sphere of human life, online interactions require habituation into a set of beliefs, values, and practices. Therefore, our students need to learn how to be cyber-wise.
Practical wisdom generally is the habit of mind that allows one to make good practical judgments in the circumstances of her everyday life. It is a necessary virtue because having the right general principles about how to live well does not translate into the ability to deliberate and judge well in the particular and complicated circumstances of life. For this, we need practical wisdom. Like all virtues, practical wisdom only develops over time through practical experience where one can learn from those who are living well, learn from their own mistakes, and learn from the mistakes of others in order to become better at practical deliberation (both individual and collective). Cyber-wisdom is the ability to make good judgments in the novel social circumstances we encounter online. The cultivation of this virtue is critical to taking advantage of the unique opportunities afforded us in online spaces, while minimizing online risks and dangers. Since this virtue takes time to develop, instruction in navigating online spaces should begin in middle school at the latest and continue through graduation.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which focuses on virtue education generally, has provided educators with an initial set of resources and a sample curriculum for teaching cyber-wisdom in our schools. In addition to reinforcing the virtue ethics vocabulary and conceptual framework that is the basis of any lesson in a specific virtue, Jubilee’s cyber-wisdom lessons focus on working through real-life scenarios that students are likely to encounter (or to have encountered) online: instances of bullying, threats to the physical or personal safety of oneself or one’s peers, examples of various behaviors that need to be reported to the relevant authorities, etc. The scenario in a lesson might present the student with a moral dilemma, a social problem, or a threat to their well-being. The questions that follow ask students to reflect about what virtues were displayed or lacking and what the appropriate course of action would be. There are also guided questions for discussion and journal reflection, typically asking students to explain what they would do in a given scenario and to justify their action (or inaction). These exercises reinforce virtue concepts by making explicit how they manifest themselves in practice online.
In addition to helping students think through various realistic scenarios, some lessons are more imaginative and focus on the construction of what an ideal online social world would be like. For example, in one lesson, students are asked to identify a digital exemplar—a person whose behavior online they admire and seek to imitate. This is a critical lesson that reinforces the fact that we all rely on exemplars in our practical lives, and we need digital exemplars who model what social flourishing online looks like. Lessons on exemplars invite students to reflect on who they admire and why, which will make them articulate and defend their values and their vision of how social life looks when it is functioning well in online spaces. These lessons also afford schools an excellent opportunity to reflect on their own expectations for their students—and to communicate clear guidelines about online behaviors, such as social threats and bullying.
Regardless of how social media is or isn’t regulated, it’s not going away and is increasingly a part of our public and private lives. We therefore have a duty to teach our students how to flourish online. We cannot simply leave them to fend for themselves.