RALEIGH, N.C. — With so many ways to be anonymous behind a keyboard, it’s easy for someone to send in a digital message something he or she would not say face to face. Of the thousands of Americans who use social media, 44 percent of adults and 88 percent of teens have witnessed meanness or cruelty on the sites, according to a Pew Research Center study.
Cyber bullying, plagiarism and other problems that stem from irresponsible use of the Internet have not gone unobserved by the staff of The Franciscan School, an elementary school in Raleigh. To help students realize the importance of staying true to the teachings of their faith even while online, the school has developed lessons that combine Catholic social teaching principles with digital citizenship.
“Young people are depending more and more on the digital world,” said technology coordinator Kayla Dellinger. “They are spending an increasing amount of time in front of a screen of some sort, whether a television, computer, tablet, phone or other device. Communication through these devices in the form of social networking sites offers us the luxury of anonymity. This gives us a sense that we can become different people and act in ways that do not reflect our faith.”
Raleigh is home to the Research Triangle Park, added pastor Mark Reamer, OFM, which means local families tend to be highly literate in the latest technology.
“The technology initiative is just one of the ways in which The Franciscan School integrates Catholic social teaching in age-appropriate ways in each grade and in all aspects of the curriculum,” Mark said.
This is the first year The Franciscan School has incorporated digital citizenship lessons with the principles of Catholic social teaching that are already taught to students, according to Dellinger. The principles are: care for creation, dignity of work, family and community, human dignity, human rights, option for the poor and solidarity.
“Combining Catholic social teaching and digital citizenship helps to remind students that even online when we may not be able to see who we are communicating with, we are responsible for upholding the moral teachings of the Catholic faith,” Dellinger said.
For example, the principle of human dignity is related to issues of cyber bullying and gender stereotypes portrayed in the media. Teachers emphasize the need for students to treat others with dignity, and place high importance on dignity of self, encouraging them to stand up for themselves and stay safe while online.
Discussions about plagiarism and piracy are related to dignity of work. Students are reminded that, even though there is a plethora of creative work available on the Internet, the creator should receive proper credit and compensation for his or her work.
“Our hope is that students are able to see a connection between the communities they belong to online and those that they belong to offline,” said Dellinger. “We hope they understand that behind every username is a real person who should be treated with dignity in the same way they would treat those people they meet face to face. It is important for them to transfer what they know about their faith and apply it to their digital life.”
Students have been surprised when they discover how their digital and real lives relate, according to Dellinger.
“They have really started to understand that their actions online show their character and should reflect who they are as a person,” she said. “They actively participate in serious group discussions and brainstorm ways to live out the lessons they learn from the principles in all aspects of their lives.”
The connection between Catholic social teaching and digital citizenship has also led students to start conversations with their parents about their lessons. Dellinger hopes that in the future she will work with students and classroom teachers to create more awareness of the principles through student-created videos and podcasts.
Peace and justice and Catholic education are both important ministries of the parish, according to Mark. The parish tithes 10 percent of the Offertory income to support the Province’s priority of reaching out to the marginalized and alienated, and gives another 10 percent to The Franciscan School for tuition assistance.
“I’m very proud of the good work of Kayla and all the faculty and pastoral staff who allow us to be faithful to our mission as a parish,” Mark said.
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.
Editor’s note: Earlier this fall, the Order’s English-speaking Conference released a social media policy that offers guidelines for using digital communications wisely, effectively and with respect.