Growing Up Under Constant Digital Monitoring

Quite recently, the Washington Post published a provocative article: “Technology allows us to monitor our kids around the clock. But should we?” More than once this week, I have returned to this article as a talking point when discussing topics such as Digital

Citizenship, privacy, and even childhood development. We live in an age where children, from Pre-K through young adulthood, are under constant surveillance by and communication with their parents. Now, any reader of my blog knows that I am not one to stoke fears of children on screens or stranger danger. Much of what “kids these days” do virtually is a reflection and continuation of what they do in the real world. However, I do have a concern about the impact of parental and school over-reach through these devices.

Growing up, I was the exception in high school. I had a home computer and (dial up) internet. When I went off to college in the 1990’s, cell phones had begun to inundate the world. As I drove about 1,000 miles each way to school approximately 4 times a year (Fall, Winter Break, and Summer) and long-distance plans were pricey, I purchased a cell phone with about 100 minutes a month (that was a thing). The reasoning was that I could use it should my used (and not particularly reliable) vehicle break down on I-95 and I could keep in touch with friends and family. This was before texting and unlimited long distance. I called home about once a week. This was also a time before email had truly permeated the ethos. I paid the University of Miami $100/year for an @miami.edu email address and was one of a handful with that privilege. I checked my email a few times a week. Social Media had yet to be invented.

Two decades and change later, the world for adolescents and college students is so much different than the one I experienced. Students often get their first smartphone by Middle School. After this, parents and children are in almost constant contact. Couple that with social media platforms, which many parents access (per school directives), online learning platforms where teachers disseminate grades and feedback virtually, and a myriad of other tools parents employ at different levels to keep an eye on their kids (video monitors, GPS tracking on phones, text/email trackers, and peer parents’ eyes).

A lot has been written about the detrimental effects over-parenting (think helicopter parents and tiger moms), including learned helplessness, anxiety, and delayed maturity. Dean Julie Lithcott-Haims addressed these issues in her book How to Raise an Adult.

To be fair to parents (many of whom are my peers), I believe that a lot of over-parenting derives from a place of fear; fear that is cultivated by the media, schools, and even the best meaning parenting books. In fact, while it has never been a safer time to be a child in the United States, our perception is that crime is higher than it really is.  Add to this regular “digital citizenship” nights that focus on “stranger danger” and worst case social media scenarios (I find it interesting that we don’t do this when kids get a drivers license, even though car accidents are the #1 killer of children) and parents live in a perpetual state of fear. Fear that their child will be hurt or damage themselves irrevocably, that “one mistake” will ruin their lives. The reality is, we hardly let children be alone whether physically or virtually. This does not necessarily breed a healthy (or realistic) dynamic. If you would like to learn more about that, check out danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

While delaying maturity and creating dependence is certainly alarming, my greatest concern with all of this engagement and, let’s call it what it is, surveillance is that it is robbing young people of an important right of passage – separating themselves from their families of origin. When young people went off to school for the first time in kindergarten, that was when children first began to develop a sense of self. Who am I outside of my parents/family perception of me? This includes making your own friends, tackling your own schoolhouse problems, processing challenges and victories yourself, and (perhaps hardest for parents) making your own mistakes and living with those consequences. We have created a world where students do not do this. Sometimes, parents know a child’s grade before the child (and may draft an email to the teacher). Students and parents often text each-other throughout the school day; teachers often bemoan that parents rush to “rescue” a child who has forgotten homework or their round of snacks. Parents snoop through their children’s texts and social media to see what’s “going on” in their children’s private lives. However, this prevents a child from developing themselves apart from a parent, learning to deal with their own mistakes, or processing their victories and defeats without a cheerleader or a sled driver.

I don’t know that there is an easy answer to how much to monitor and engage with your children. I do believe, however, that given your child some distance and privacy (both in real life and virtually), can and does go a long way in helping them to develop into their own, independent self.

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How to Use Google’s Data Gif Maker in the Classroom

Google just announced a new tool, primarily aimed at journalists, a data gif maker. This is a great tool for students to use in the classroom as it allows for a new way to convey information (specifically change over time) visually. Check out how to create data gifs on google’s blog.

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Something New: Codey McCoderson

I cannot wait to see what my friend Daniel Schneider is going to post about his Computer Science adventures!!

Mathy McMatherson

So here’s something new: I’m gonna try writing at a new blog for a while. It’s called Codey McCoderson because good jokes only get better with age. Here’s why:

I’ve spent this last year mostly out of the classroom doing quasi-administratory-things as a Math Interventionist. I’ve managed our online credit recovery program, gathered & analyzed data, and created personal relationships with our intervention students to the point where our school has a pretty robust math credit recovery program for our students who fall behind or transfer students whose credits never made it with them. I’ve also helped bring ST Math to our school (based in a large part on a recommendation from Christopher Danielson) which has been a huge boost to our ELL Math program we’ve developed. I’ve written grants for manipulatives, recruited tutors to participate in the class, and gotten to the point where basically a team of 3…

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Three Lessons for Schools from the Wannacry Ransomware Attack

All weekend, computer systems around the world have been hit by a ransomware attack termed “WannaCry.” Ransomware is a nefarious cyber-security attack that essentially holds your computer and its files hostage until you pay the requested amount of money

to unlock it. Ransomware attacks have been on the rise over the years, but this weekend’s attack has been especially widespread and nefarious, attacking the NHS in the United Kingdom, public and private businesses (such as FedEx), and likely more governmental entities than any of us would like to consider. The cyber-attack, however, also highlighted a number of easily fixable security holes in home and business computers. If your students are interested in talking about this event, here are some best practice tips you can give to them to keep their systems safe and secure:

Keep Your Systems Up to Date

The majority of the compromised systems were out of date. For example, a large number of them were running Windows XP. Microsoft stopped releasing security updates to its Windows XP system more than two years ago. Even so, an alarming number of systems still run on this out-dated OS. Others were running more recent Windows operating systems, but they had not installed critical security updates. As comfortable as we get with our operating systems, it is imperative to keep them up to date for this very reason. I’ve heard people comment that they don’t update because they “don’t want their computer/phone to stop working.” The reality is, the opposite is true! By not running critical security updates, your system becomes susceptible to malware and hacking, which will at best slow it down, and at worst, will lock down your system.

Don’t Use Pirated Software

Aside from the ethical implications, pirated software is a significant security risk. First, you never really know what you get when you download and install that package. Additionally, if you run unregistered software on your machine, then you also cannot run critical security updates. This easily compromises your system. Wide-spread software piracy is prominent in some countries, most notably China and Russia. However, I’ve also seen it in a number of offices and homes right here in the United States. For example, rather than pay for an office/home-wide Microsoft license, users will purchase one or two licenses and install on multiple devices. Cutting these corners also might safe you some money in the short run, but the security loopholes leave you at greater risk.

Educate Yourself about Phishing

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Courtesy of Edward Richard Contrera https://www.flickr.com/photos/35484468@N07/4894714911

Phishing is a nefarious means of getting a user to click on a link or a file to install malware onto their device. Some phishing attacks are sloppy and obvious; they are replete with typos and non-sequiturs. However, phishing attacks have gotten more sophisticated, including spoofing accounts to make an email look like it came from a friend or a colleague. Always exercise caution and skepticism when opening an email that doesn’t quite “feel right.”

As more data is moved to the cloud and we are reliant on digital systems, the more commonplace cyber-attacks will be. Educating your community and students about the current attacks can help to prevent the next one!

The Smart Device – Our Savior or Overlord?

Smart Devices have taken the United States by storm. While smart locks (allowing you to remotely open your home without your keys), smart thermostats (programmable and controllable via your device), and a myriad of other “smart tools” have been around for years, what has been really pushing these devices has been the influx of new smart speaker/hub devices – Amazon’s Echo series, Google Home, and the newly release Microsoft Invoke (there are rumors of an Apple Siri driven device coming this year). Now, with only your voice, you can set a timer, turn on/off your lights, adjust your thermostat, stream television shows, and (with Amazon’s new Alexa update preempting the release of Amazon Echo Show) call or text your mom. By the way, this is a limited list – you can do far more!

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So what does this mean for us? With the proliferation of smart home devices, I’ve seen legitimate concerns and excitement across the aisle. Privacy has become a more prominent concern among tech consumers. While I have my share of tools and devices, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t concerned about what data was being collected and how it is being disseminated. This is not just a concern about marketing (although many think it’s creepy that they purchase an item at the physical store and then find ads for it on their browser). Now that our digital lives, which seamlessly intersect with our physical ones, are becoming more cataloged and accessible, what does that mean for our future career and personal aspirations? Amanda Hess, columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote an op-ed entitled “How Privacy Became a Commodity for the Rich and Powerful.” If you have not yet read this piece, please do. It’s a powerful look at how our lives are now becoming monetized in ways that we cannot even imagine. Additionally, where does privacy end for us when it comes to government investigation? Edward Snowden’s exposure of NSA surveillance should remind us all that even if we are not under criminal investigation, our data is being collected and mined by the government.

However, on the opposite side of the coin, these devices do make our lives much easier. Yes, I do mean largely in the mundane – while my hands are covered in food residue I can just ask Alexa to set a timer or have her (when did I start thinking of “it” as a “her”?) turn off the lights after I leave a room so that I don’t have to walk across my living room in the pitch black, risking stubbing a toe or tripping on shoes. Of course it makes my life easier – just as Waze makes my drive home faster through Miami traffic, but perhaps I’m a little reliant on convenience! However, smart devices are having a profound impact on individuals with disabilities. It empowers them to be more independent and safe. For example, NBC news recently highlighted the experience of Todd, a quadriplegic 48 year old man. He spoke powerfully about how smart devices have enabled him to have lead a more fulfilling an independent life, and to be a better husband to his wife.

“A spouse should be your spouse. Your lover and your friend. Not a free caregiver,”

Todd’s experience is not unique as many individuals share how life-changing and impactful smart devices are for them. If you don’t believe me, check out the comments on Amazon Echo’s page. Their affordability (through their proliferation on the consumer market) make them accessible across socioeconomic divides; a user doesn’t need to fight an insurance company to gain access.

So what is the answer with smart devices? What level of privacy (if any) should we expect to forfeit? Who should over see this? How do we educate ourselves as well as children? To me, the last question is the most important. These technologies have exploded and common practice and legal overlay has not yet evolved to tackle them. If we don’t know what privacy we are giving up, then how do we know if it’s worth it? If these tools have become necessities (as many argue the internet now is), then is it legitimate to sacrifice our privacy to use them?

What do you think? What answers do you have or do you think we should explore?

3 Ways Schools can Help Users to Protect their Accounts from Malware, Phishing, & Cyber-scams.

Recently, G-Suite users were hit by a large phishing scam. Users were sent an email that appeared to be from Google and asked to click on a document for collaboration. The

nefarious document then gave the sender access to your whole account, including your directory, enabling it to spread. While phishing is nothing new, it has become more problematic and sophisticated. As such, it’s especially important to include some cyber-security basics as soon as students start to have access to digital tools.

Identify Scams

Most scams are pretty easy to identify. You are sent a typo laden email from someone you don’t know asking you to “check this out.” However, as email spoofing becomes more prominent, it’s important to not just open an attachment even if you know the user. There are a few red flags: the email is full of typos and errors, it doesn’t fit the tone of the sender (e.g. would your teacher be sending an email that says “check this out!”), or it just doesn’t feel right.

Keep your Operating System & Security Software Up to Date

Yes, updates can be annoying – they take a long time and may require a hardware restart in the middle of the day. However, keep your operating system and security software up to date is essential to cyber-security. While you may not want to update to the latest Windows or iOS software on day 1 (a brand new OS may have a bug or two, as early iOS 10 adopters learned when it bricked several phones), you should do so shortly after the release. Critical security updates should be installed regularly as they plug security holes and fix exploitable bugs.

Enable Two Factor Authentication

Two factor authentication is a security measure that grants you access to your account or device only after you have presented two methods of authentication (e.g. your account password and a code texted to your phone or sent to an email). It has been around for a while, but many users never enable it. Two Factor Authentication may feel like a pain, but it is the best possible defense against potential hackers or nefarious users. If you have ever been locked out of your account because another user has gained access, you know how difficult it can be to regain access and the damage that can be done to your reputation or your pocket book. Enable two factor authentication on all of your sensitive accounts (bank accounts, email, social media, etc). The extra 30 seconds it takes to log in will be worth it!

These are just a few ways that students can protect their devices and accounts from malware, phishing, and cyber-scams. However, as cyber attacks become more sophisticated, network administrators and users must become more savvy. It’s important to keep up your skills and consistently train your community. I encourage administrators to attend cyber-security webinars and workshops, such as ATLIS’s Cyber-Security Workshop in Chicago this summer.

Teaching the Holocaust – Resources for Education

As a history teacher, I am also struck by both the impact and magnitude of teaching the Holocaust. The Holocaust was neither first, nor sadly the last, targeted genocide in world

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Holocaust Memorial Berlin – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

history. However, due to the meticulous record keeping of Nazi’s and the fortitude and resilience of the Jewish people, it is a powerful lesson that educators must tackle in their classrooms.

One of the best resources for teaching the Holocaust can be found at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Under the Teacher Resources page, educators can find a myriad of tools to help them cover not only this horrific event in history, but means of applying the lessons of the Holocaust in the modern day. Lesson plans are divided by grade level and subject matter. Teachers can incorporate various activities using multiple modalities to help teach their students about the events leading up to, surrounding, and impacted by the Holocaust. Educators interested in learning more about the Holocaust and impactful teaching strategies should check out the Professional Events and Resources page where they can learn about the annual conference, workshops, and other professional development opportunities.