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Middle School Students Learn About Developing a Digital Consciousness

Richard Guerry talks to students at Stetson Middle School about developing a digital consciousness

Every generation claims to have it tougher than the generation before them, but at least the current generation can learn from the mistakes of previous ones. The first digital generation, however, which is all of us, doesn't have that luxury. We are the digital pioneers, the digital trailblazers, the laboratory rats for the creators of digital technology. We make digital decisions every day, some good and some bad that will help to shape future generations and the choices they make in the digital world.

That message was at the core of "Public and Permanent," an award-winning presentation delivered to West Chester Area School District middle school students by Richard Guerry, the executive director of the non-profit Institute for Responsible Online and Cell Phone Communication (IROC2).

More than 2,300 students from Fugett, Peirce, and Stetson Middle Schools attentively listened as Guerry gave an eye-opening presentation about how useful and powerful digital tools, like smartphones, the internet, and social media can be when one develops and lives by a "digital consciousness." Abuse them and the chances of creating a self-inflicted, sometimes life-altering event spike significantly.

"Every day, through all of our actions in a digital world, what we do when we turn these things on," said Guerry holding up a smartphone, "is create statistics. We create statistics of both promise and pitfalls for the next generation to learn from. The goal here today is to help all of us help the next generation to become one of the many statistics of promise, not pitfalls."

Guerry calls "public and permanent" the Golden Rule of the 21st Century that evolved from a fundamental guideline we all learned as children, "playing with fire can burn." While it is not guaranteed that you will get burned if you play with fire, your chances increase if you do.

Students heard about a series of digital missteps, such as the University of Iowa teaching assistant who was supposed to send test scores to her class, but instead sent nude photos of herself; a young athlete who ruined his chances of playing football for the University of Michigan because of a series of explicit tweets; a woman who accidentally sent nude photos of herself to her boss on Snapchat. The list didn't stop there.

Guerry is not anti-technology, internet, or social media. He is quite the opposite, which is why, in 2009, he shut down his internet marketing firm and created IROC2. In 2009, Guerry gave a presentation on sexting to a middle school in New Jersey and that’s when his life changed.

"I was asked to speak to middle schools students in New Jersey about sexting. After I left that school and saw how little everyone in the room knew about technology, I was petrified. I thought to myself, what is out there for kids? There was a lot of great stuff, but it was all reactionary. Why wait for people to get in trouble and then have an assembly about it? It doesn't make any sense. So, after about a week of research, I thought something has to change. We can't just keep going like this."

From that moment on, Guerry was committed to sharing the golden rule of the 21st Century. He doesn't tell people to steer clear of digital tools; he advises them to use them responsibly.

"Ask yourself, 'Am I okay with what I'm doing and saying in a world built for communication going public and permanent?'"

Guerry says the "public and permanent" rule is not an absolute truth; rather it is more of a guideline. He suggests that users of digital technology perform a risk assessment that is available on the institute's website www.iroc2.org.

"It's all about risk levels. When people start oversharing things (online), and the people they don't want (to see those things) take an interest, now you have a risk spike. You're basically raising your risk off the line of billions of people. It doesn't mean that something bad will happen to you, it's just that you are now raising your risk."

"Risks go up when you abuse a powerful tool - any tool. Fool around with the most powerful tools on the planet that connect us to each other and a billion other people instantly, and risks go way up.  Use that powerful tool to your advantage."

The digital space is all about "instant knowledge, communication, and permanence," which comes at a price. Guerry calls social privacy an oxymoron and says as speed and convenience in communication goes up, levels of privacy go down.

Public and Permanent is far from just doom and gloom scenarios. Students did hear about some positive examples of responsible digital usage, such as the story of a high school student from Massachusetts who credits his creative Twitter campaign with helping him get accepted to UCLA.

In addition to performing an online risk assessment, Guerry offered other tips during a special parent presentation. Guerry, who has a 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter," says he uses the training wheels approach with his kids when it comes to technology.

"My daughter is about to get a flip-phone. My son started with a flip-phone. They work their way up. Whenever they start something new, I ask them questions. Like gaming for instance, 'who would you talk to, what would you say?' Sometimes he got it right, and sometimes he got it wrong. It's a teachable moment. It's about constant communication and evaluating their maturity levels."

For more tips and information about the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication, visit www.iroc2.org.

Click here to access more information from Richard Guerry's presentation, Public & Permanent.