Cyber Choices

Matthew JohnsonMeet Sasha. At age 8, she's a real social butterfly, both online and off, and is very concerned with how the world sees her: she spends a lot of time making sure she looks good in photos online but doesn't always think twice about who might see them. Violet is Sasha's older sister and her polar opposite: she's a hardcore gamer, and just as tough as her Level 65 Barbarian. Though she despairs of her sister sometimes, she's also fiercely protective of her and will unleash her considerable wrath on anyone she thinks is picking on Sasha.

Sasha and Violet are just two of the characters that students will meet in Cyber Choices, a new comprehensive digital citizenship tutorial that prepares students in grades three to five to deal with all of the issues they face when using digital technology. Delivered in an engaging online comic-book format (with accompanying audio to support developing readers), Cyber Choices lets students explore four different stories that cover key issues such as making good choices about your own and others’ personal information, dealing with cyberbullying and managing online conflict. We tested the game in schools to make sure that students and teachers found the game relevant, entertaining, easy to play and easy for teachers to integrate into their classroom practice.

Throughout Cyber Choices we follow Sasha, Violet and their friends as they share photos, battle dragons, and deal with friends, siblings and frenemies both online and offline. At key moments, students practice their decision-making skills by sorting out the reasons why the character might make one choice rather than another: only after they have correctly weighed the pros and cons can they then decide which way the story will go. Once students have played each story to one of the different possible conclusions, the tutorial prompts students to feel empathy in digital environments by asking them to reflect on how the different people in the story felt about how the story turned out. In a classroom setting, the multiple endings for each story can lead to meaningful classroom discussions after playing. As well, different scenarios give them insight into different viewpoints – allowing them to experience a cyberbullying situation as both the target and a witness, and then following the perpetrators as she learns how to defuse conflict and manage her emotions.

Cyber Choices is designed to teach and foster the following skills and qualities:

Online safety and privacy management. With social networks like Facebook and Instagram offering versions of their service for children under 13, along with the popularity of platforms like TikTok and YouTube with younger kids, online safety and privacy education has to start early. Cyber Choices teaches kids that things they post online can have unexpected audiences and shows them what to do when a photo of you gets out of your control. It also introduces the idea that in spaces where we don’t interact using our real names, like online games, the players you encounter might be anyone – from a total stranger to your next-door neighbour.

Confidence and efficacy online. Cyber Choices helps students to become active online citizens by showing them that what they do online matters and has an effect on their own and others’ lives. Self-efficacy – believing that you know what to do in different situations and that what you do makes a difference – has been found to be a key factor in protecting youth from online risks, reducing the harm done when things go wrong, and prompting them to do something when they witness online bullying. 

Ethical thinking. One of the key steps in making an ethical decision is identifying the situation as a moral issue, so it’s essential that young people be taught to view the online world through an ethical lens. Cyber Choices promotes students’ ethical thinking by showing how the characters’ online and offline worlds are connected: what the characters do in one may have consequences in the other. 

Empathy. While empathy has many elements, one important part is imagining what someone else is thinking or feeling – which has been shown to be a skill that improves with practice. Cyber Choices promotes empathy by encouraging students to imagine how each of the characters feels about the situation they are in, and to reconsider their assumptions by showing them an online conflict from three different perspectives – the target, a witness and the perpetrator. At the end of each story students are asked how they think the characters felt about what happened and given feedback on their choice.

Emotional regulation. MediaSmarts’ research has found that a lot of online aggression happens when kids want to get back at someone they feel has done something bad to them or to their friends. To avoid and defuse conflict online, students need to be able to identify and manage their emotions, two of the key elements of social-emotional learning. Cyber Choices teaches kids ways to deal with their own and others’ feelings, including concrete steps they can take such as not responding to others when they’re feeling anger or other “hot” emotions, talking out conflicts in person rather than online, and stepping away from online conflict until they’ve cooled down.           

Resiliency. Because it’s impossible to totally avoid negative experiences online, Cyber Choices helps students develop coping strategies that have been shown to work in reducing the impact of cyberbullying and other online risks. As well as modeling ways of dealing with specific online issues, the tutorial encourages broader habits that contribute to resiliency.  In particular, students are shown how to fix their mistakes by making sure “bad” choices are always followed by opportunities to make things better. It also encourages helps students to find different solutions to a problem by giving them a chance to re-play each story as many times as they like and encourages them to seek help from peers, teachers and family members.

To help teachers integrate Cyber Choices into their classroom practice, the tutorial tracks students’ scores for each scenario, and allows teachers to monitor their progress as they complete it. It also comes with a comprehensive teacher’s guide, post-game extension activities and charts that show how it meets curricular expectations for each province and territory.

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