As 4th graders’ use of technology often expands to platforms like email, text, instant message, shared documents, and Google Classroom (where students can comment on class posts), students start to realize they have a digital voice all their own. They can suddenly use technology to communicate with others and express themselves. This is enormously compelling! They can connect socially with their peers, behave a bit more like the teenagers and adults they look up to, and taste the cachet of participating in the digital world, with its many opportunities for rewarding surprises and instant gratification.
This month in 4th grade, we’ve been exploring the analogy that developing your digital voice is a lot like a baby learning to talk. There’s a lot of babbling at first. Statements like “I’m awesome!” and “Hey everybody!” as well as excessive emojis and animated gifs, are the digital equivalent of babble. We see a lot of these among 4th graders who are communicating online.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with them; in fact it’s quite natural to develop your voice this way. But developing your digital voice this way works much better 1:1. Two toddlers in a room learning to talk, babbling back and forth, is cute and probably constructive. TEN toddlers in a room babbling all at once is chaotic, noisy, and likely quick-to-annoy. And so it goes with two 4th graders in a text, as opposed to, say, ten.
The 4th graders connected readily with this analogy, and many eagerly expressed firsthand experience with noisy group texts. While we acknowledged group texts can at times be fun, we also more deeply explored the ways in which they can go wrong (particularly if you haven’t had practice building your digital voice):
- Participants often feel like they have to read and/or respond to everyone’s input, which can cause stress in terms of time management and the ability to communicate clearly.
- It’s easy for someone’s feelings to get hurt or for messages to get misinterpreted in group texts. It’s MUCH easier to avoid this if you are communicating 1:1.
- Students this age are still developing their values around digital etiquette. For example, some people think it’s “rude” to exit a group text conversation, while others don’t even notice. It can be hard to navigate such a complex situation if you haven’t had practice with someone you trust.
- Sometimes people text from other time zones at inopportune times, like when we’re sleeping.
- In our experience, nothing that good, important, or substantive comes from group texts among students this age–just noise, silliness, and (sometimes) drama.
- Students who are excluded from group chats or texts for any reason (parents won’t grant permission; student doesn’t have a device on which to communicate; certain students aren’t invited into the chat) sometimes also end up feeling left out at school as well, as a result.
- Personal email accounts and social media accounts generally stipulate a minimum age of 13 to open because of privacy protection laws. When students have such accounts before they are 13, we recommend that a parent be actively involved in monitoring/using them.
We concluded by brainstorming ways to constructively build your digital voice:
Text or email 1:1 with a parent, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or trusted friend.
- Get practice figuring out how you want to use your digital voice substantively. What things matter to you? How can you use technology to communicate or express yourself around those values?
- Technology often has a negative impact on relationships. Think about ways to use technology to forge positive connections with others, and make that a priority as you engage socially online.
- Give yourself permission to leave a group text, free from fear of negative social repercussions for having left. If it helps, talk to the people involved in-person before you leave the group text. Explain to them your reasons for leaving, and that it’s not because you don’t want to be friends with them.
- Start separate 1:1 texts to fill the space. Or get backup from a parent or teacher, and put the decision for you to leave the group on their shoulders.
- Build mindfulness around digital communications. Notice when they make you feel excited, anxious, stressed, upset, sad, angry, or silly. If you notice a pretty constant emotional roller coaster, or a lot of negative feelings when you’re online, it might be a good idea to pull back a bit and focus on in-person relationships.
- It’s also good to WAIT to develop your digital voice. There’s no hurry to getting to text, email, or IM your peers. If you wait, your brain will be better equipped to develop a stronger voice, more efficiently. Let your brain develop in other ways that are critical to pre-adolescence. Make decisions in the interest of taking the very best care of yourself!
We will continue to build on this conversation this month by role-playing hypothetical scenarios around digital drama. Students work in groups of 2-4 to discuss one of these scenarios, then work together to create an ending. They rehearse the skit, which they perform for the rest of the class, after which we debrief what we saw, and discuss what we might learn from what we saw. The students love these, and they effectively help build awareness, vocabulary, and advocacy around tech habits.
As always, we encourage parents to reinforce these same messages and practices at home. Help your child build a digital life that is balanced and intentional, vis-a-vis the guidelines above.