How do you teach kids about texting? Bring in the teenagers
ESSEN, Germany — How do you teach tech-savvy kids to safely navigate the digital world? In Germany, you bring in the teenagers.
On a recent day, 18-year-old Chantal Hueben stood in front of a group of fifth-graders and asked them to brainstorm about the messaging program Whatsapp, which most are using to participate in a group chat for their class. They spoke about themes like cyberbullying and what material is OK to post.
"Many are not really aware yet of the impact their messages can have on others," says Hueben, dressed all in black except for white sneakers. "We're teaching them not to post anything private on the class chat, not to send photos of others and not to insult anybody."
The session at the Gesamtschule Borbeck high school, in the western German city of Essen, is part of a large-scale program in which teenagers teach their younger schoolmates how to stay safe and sane online.
As they grow older, they also participate in workshops about media copyright issues or sexting, and, at the end of eighth grade, they take a test to get a laminated "mobile license" that allows them to use their smartphones at certain times at school.
The exam includes 10 multiple choice questions. One asks what to do when somebody sends an embarrassing Snapchat photo of a fellow student. The answer, of course, is to not forward the picture to others.
Over two-thirds of kids in Germany have smartphones by the age of 11 and, like children around the world, many are stressed by the huge number of messages they receive and don't know how to handle inappropriate and hurtful posts. With many parents and teachers lacking in digital skills and unable to relate to what it means to grow up with a smartphone, German authorities decided peer education was the best approach.
At Borbeck, which has about 1,000 students and is considered one of the most advanced schools in Germany when it comes to teaching digital skills, there are 32 students teaching in the "Medienscouts," or media scouts, program.
"We're also students, so we have this buddy and role model relationship with the younger kids that definitely motivates them to learn from us," Hueben says.
With the program, Germany is ahead of many other countries, where "media skills" are often taught by teachers and are more about how to read or watch news media rather than the personal impact.
It was founded in 2011 by public authorities in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In Germany, education is managed by the country's 16 separate states, and now 11 of them have established similar programs in hundreds of schools.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, 766 schools have so far participated in the media scout program. More than 3,120 high school students have been trained as scouts and around 1,500 teachers have acted as guidance counselors to help the kids grow up as mature cyber world citizens.
"It would be great if the media scouts would be established at every high school," said Sven Hulvershorn from the media authority agency for the western German state, who oversees the media scout program. "We're not there yet, but we're working on it."
Beyond teaching children how to deal with the daily stress of digital communications, experts in Germany agree there's a need to coach them in how to protect themselves from online bullying, sexual predators or fake news.