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How to Teach Your Students to Think Before They Post

Twelve lesson plans to help kids deal with ethical dilemmas in today's digital world.

Jeff Knutson | February 19, 2019

Let's start with the obvious: Kids make mistakes. It's a normal -- and important -- part of growing up. But today, with smartphones, cameras, and social media everywhere, anything they do can be instantly broadcast and recorded -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. In our 24/7 digital world, kids come of age, learn, and make mistakes just like they always have, but the stakes are so much higher than in generations past. So what does this mean for kids' futures?

As teachers, we know that what kids post online about themselves and others can stick with them. And believe it or not, plenty of kids already know this, even when their actions may suggest otherwise. Lots of kids and teens -- maybe most of them -- know what it means to make good choices for themselves. But when faced with real-world situations, actually acting on this knowledge can be a lot more challenging. As one 13-year-old we interviewed noted, "if you're a teenager, you're gonna make bad decisions sometimes. And you might send an inappropriate picture. I mean, I hear about that a lot."

The slogan Think before you post! is central to so many aspects of digital citizenship. We say it out loud to our students; we get our students to repeat it back to us. But how can we help them actually act on this advice? The key is to give kids opportunities to grapple with the different ethical questions that come along with living in our digital world.

This is why we've continued our partnership with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to help us ground our updated curriculum in the latest research around kids and their digital lives. Led by Carrie James and Emily Weinstein, Project Zero's research project, Educating with Digital Dilemmas, explores how tweens and teens are navigating the personal, moral, ethical, and civic dilemmas of today's networked world and the roles adults can play to best support young people. As one middle school teacher in their research explained, "I'm not interested in just giving them a definition of sexting, because that's not going to help them make a decision at ten o'clock on a Saturday night."

Learn more about Common Sense's collaboration with Project Zero.

Lesson plans and resources

Common Sense's updated lessons are designed specifically to help kids develop both the skills and the habits of mind they need to thrive in our increasingly complex digital world. Looking to get started? Here are some lesson plans that support helping kids think before they post:

3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade lesson plans

This Is Me: This lesson is all about how we share information about ourselves and the assumptions others may make about us based on what we post. Students can reflect on how they want others to view them, then think critically about the online identities they're creating.

The Power of Words: Here, students can consider how others may interpret what they say and post in digital spaces. They can also identify ways to respond when they see others using mean or hurtful words online. With this lesson, you can help kids build empathy for others and learn strategies to use when they're confronted with cyberbullying.

Private and Personal Information: Sharing with others is a big part of being online today, but -- especially for kids -- it also comes with some risks. Can your students differentiate between private and personal information? Help them learn the difference.

Our Online Tracks: This lesson helps students define the term "digital footprint." They'll also have space to consider how different online activities contribute to people's digital footprints in different ways. Show your students how they can contribute to a positive digital reputation, both for themselves and for others when they're online.

Beyond Gender Stereotypes: Gender stereotypes in the media can affect the ways kids view both themselves and others. And on social media, it's easy for kids to share content that may reinforce hurtful or harmful biases. In this lesson, students will define what "gender stereotypes" are and think critically about the stereotypes they're seeing, and may be sharing, online.

Digital Friendships: Today, kids make friendships everywhere they go, including online. In this lesson, your students can explore some of the different types of friendships that happen online and consider both the benefits and risks that come with them.

6th-, 7th-, and 8th-grade lesson plans

Who Are You Online?: Many tweens and teens create different or alternate personas for themselves when they're online and on social media. But what does it mean for kids to "be yourself" or "be real"? Help your students explore both the benefits and drawbacks to posting from multiple accounts.

Chatting Safely Online: In this lesson, students can reflect on just how well they actually know the people they're interacting with online and the kinds of information they're sharing with others. Help your students learn about "red flag feelings" and the best ways to respond when they happen.

The Power of Digital Footprints: Here, students can analyze some sample digital footprints from two characters. They'll then be able to think critically about how their own digital footprints can lead others to draw conclusions -- both positive and negative -- about who they are.

Being Aware of What You Share: This lesson puts a slightly different spin on the concept of digital footprints, focusing mainly on the data that apps, websites, and other digital tools collect from users when they're online. Help your students think critically about who's collecting these types of data and how it's being used.

Social Media and Digital Footprints: Our Responsibilities: When it comes to kids' digital footprints, social media is ground zero. In this lesson, students can reflect on how the features of various social media platforms affect their own -- and their peers' -- digital footprints.

Sexting and Relationships: Most middle schoolers aren't ready for all the risks involved with exploring their sexuality in the digital age. Help your students think critically about self-disclosure in relationships, and give them opportunities to practice how they'd respond in a situation where sexting -- or a request for sexting -- might happen.