Why Isn’t the Abstinence-Only Approach Working with Digital Citizenship?

“Mom, I met the most amazing boy!” I can hear these words in my head even though it has been four years since they were uttered in my kitchen. The night before, my 13-year-old daughter attended a sleepover with friends from her community volleyball team. The girls, all from different schools, spent the night swapping stories and giggling about the boys in their classes. One girl introduced a boy she believed to be from her school via Instagram. As it turns out, that “boy” was no boy at all. After being tipped off by his request to meet my daughter at a late-night movie on a Friday, we discovered he was an adult male posing as a middle school boy.

My first reaction was fear. I didn’t let anyone except my husband and I drive my daughter to and from school, I called the school to confirm with them that we were the only ones who could pick her up, I reached out to all the other girls’ parents to inform them of this imposter, and I turned off my daughter’s phone, burying it in the back of a drawer. I reached out to Instagram, along with having dozens of my friends do the same, when I noticed the fake Instagram account had pictures posted of my child.  When Instagram failed to remove the account, I decided to go to the police. To my shock, the police said they couldn’t investigate. In my state, the man would have needed to say he was planning on committing a sexual act during the Friday night meet-up in order for police to investigate.

teenager holding and using a phone
Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

I felt sick. I had been teaching and running professional development on digital citizenship for six years at that point. I was a certified Common Sense Education Ambassador.  I had taken all the right precautions as a parent by establishing strict rules about social media:

  1. You can only post pictures you take (no memes)
  2. Phones are plugged in downstairs (outside of bedrooms) at night
  3. Mom and dad must be able to follow you on social media
  4. No changing passcodes or passwords without permission; and
  5. Only follow people you have physically met in-person

My daughter had clearly broken rule #5, and that was all it took to arrive at this situation, feeling like she was in imminent danger. Questions swirled in my head. What do I do now? Everyone comes to me for advice on these topics, who can I go to? I was confused, feeling shameful and angry that I didn’t know what to do or where to go.

That experience really impacted the way I look at digital citizenship curriculum. The only materials I ever came across before then were based on an abstinence approach:

  • Don’t stay up all night playing video games
  • Don’t take nude pictures
  • Don’t post inappropriate memes
  • Don’t record your friends without permission

The problem was this: the abstinence-only approach doesn’t work for all students. It doesn’t create a space for students to talk about the things that are really happening to them. It doesn’t foster the necessary conversations– “I am sorry your boyfriend shared your nude pictures, remember don’t take nude pictures!” is not going to address the problems kids are facing.

I decided to take matters into my own hands and use the only tools I had. As a teacher, I developed my own curriculum that my daughter worked through for the spring semester. It included:

  • Ways to identify the red flags in interactions online
  • Establishing a group of adults the youth feels safe contacting in an emergency
  • Designing a system to contact those safe adults in all types of situations
  • Role-playing by having conversations with those adults to learn what to say and how they might react
  • A series of fake posts to respond to with discussion about appropriate responses; and
  • A research project on human trafficking

As my daughter worked through these lessons, we visited our local Wal-Mart to look at the row of pictures on the wall of missing children. In my day it was a child on a milk carton, but now it is a wall of teenage girls just like her. We also had a Zoom call with a girl who had been trafficked, and my daughter listened to her share the story of how she had been at a mall when a young guy approached her on behalf of an older man he was working for– a bait and switch scenario.

Slowly, we let my daughter have her phone back. We put back one app at a time, and continued to follow and monitor her closely. This wasn’t and isn’t a perfect system, and I still worry every day that there is a lesson I forgot to impart. The feeling of fear never goes away. And for a long time, I followed that imposter’s Instagram account. I watched him do this two more times. Each time, I would find out where the student lived, what middle school they went to, and call the police.

Instead of the abstinence-only approach, we need to create a ‘what now?’ approach.

What this experience taught me is that it’s time to rethink our digital citizenship approach. We still don’t provide strategies for teachers, students, or parents to handle these situations. Instead of the abstinence-only approach, we need to create a “what now?” approach. What happens after an incident like this one? What steps should be taken to ensure safety, prevent the youth from falling into a similar trap, and still be able to continue using technology? It is time for us to create a curriculum that addresses the digital world that we are living in and helps students navigate real-world situations.

To learn more watch our ondemand session: Why the Abstinence-Only Approach Isn’t Working for Digital Citizenship.

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