Several years ago, elementary and middle school teachers across the country began raising a common concern: cyber bullying was rampant, and fortunately, a national conversation had started around it, but they had no way of using their work in the classroom to combat it. “It was happening on social networks where teachers don’t have visibility,” says Jessica Covarrubias, program lead for Be Internet Awesome, the initiative that Google — yes, the Google — came up with to address bullying and the larger question that parents and big internet and social medias companies share: how do we keep kids safe online and teach them digital responsibility in the process?
As Covarrubias shared on the ground at this year’s Mom 2.0 conference in Austin, TX April 24-26, Google launched Be Internet Awesome for educators in the summer of 2017, complete with a curriculum “designed to reinforce lessons in the classroom” and also an online game, Interland, that kids loved. When parents heard about the programming, they wanted a version for themselves, especially since some recognized that in many cases they weren’t the most educated or responsible digital citizens that they could be. Be Internet Awesome launched its family guide in February of this year. The strategy, Covarrubias says, is “targeting all key adult figures in child’s life to help kids navigate the internet more safely.”
While Covarrubias wouldn’t say exactly how big a financial commitment Google has made to the program, she described the company as “heavily invested" in Be Internet Awesome, describing it as a "marquis program,” and that certainly seemed true walking through its activation at Mom 2.0, where Romper was a 2019 national media partner.
Recognizing that many parents do feel lost as to how to help their children navigate their digital lives in educated and empowered ways, the buildout took the form of a bright, pristine white labyrinth conceived by Crown + Conquer and constructed by The Lab. “We’re walking moms through an internet maze to think through how you navigate it with your children,” Covarrubias says.
There were five stops, each with a guided interactive experience of one facet of the program. After completing each part of the activation, they got a stamp on a passport that they turned in at the end for a drink from Texas juice joint Juiceland, local Austin coffee supplier Creature Coffee, and a doughnut from Voodoo, the local viral doughnut sensation, to ring around the straw. A photo booth with an Insta-worthy backdrop encouraged attendees — many of whom are mega influencers in the parenting space, with tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers — to spread the word about the program to other parents.
Be Internet Awesome has five pillars: Be Smart, focused on educating kids about what they should and shouldn’t share online; Be Alert, which teaches them to recognize phishing and #fakenews; Be Strong, teaching them about creating strong passwords; Be Kind, focused on combatting cyberbullying with positive social media behavior; and Be Brave, which gives them the language and tools to approach a trusted adult when they come across inappropriate content (which, let’s face it, they will).
Like the programming for educators, Be Internet Awesome for parents is totally free and does not require any login. There is no data collection from kids using Interland (collecting data from children is illegal anyway), no advertising on any aspect of the program, and it’s platform agnostic, meaning the information is not intended just for Google and Android users.
Conscious of disparities in access, Google made sure the program is free and offered in all 50 states in English, Spanish, and nine other languages. According to Covarrubias, Be Internet Awesome also partners with the national PTA to offer workshops for digitally disadvantaged parents.
It’s been so popular — and so effective — that teachers are now asking Google for a teen version.
Our cruise through the #BeInternetAwesome activation and Family Guide yielded these five questions you should be asking to ensure that your kids are safe online:
1. How Much Are They Sharing?
The Be Smart Pillar invites families to discuss together what information is okay to share outside of the family and what isn’t. Geotag themselves or your home on social media? Never. Share on social media that you’re out of town? Also no. But your kids aren’t going to know this unless you talk to them about it. "Now kids are born with so much more access. [They] were sharing more than they should because they don’t know any better,” Covarrubias says. Be Internet Awesome aims to close that knowledge gap.
2. Can They Recognize False Information?
Part of good digital citizenship — and good citizenship in general — is being able to differentiate well-sourced, accurate information from falsehoods posted online or on social media with the intention of manipulating the reader. Is the source reputable? Does the content seem to have a strong bias, and if so, is that bias backed up by facts you can independently confirm via other reputable sources? These are all important things to discuss with school age children. According to the #BeInternetAwesome Family Guide, a simple web search is a good demonstration tool (surprise, surprise), but you can also show kids examples of posts on your social media feed and challenge them to determine whether they are factual or not.
3. Do They Know How To Protect Their Data?
This is as simple as discussing what makes a strong password (and doesn’t). One place to start is your own passwords, especially if your kids know them. That means no more 0123456 for you, either.
4. How Are They Treating Others Online? Are They Contributing To A Culture Of Kindness?
Not being kind themselves could be an indication that they feel it’s okay to say things online in writing that they wouldn’t say to a person’s face, or that saying it in writing isn’t hurtful. Or it could be an indication that they themselves are struggling. Even when kids see hurtful speech on social media, the program encourages them to respond with positivity. “We tell kids that people who are being negative could use some positivity in their life, too,” Covarrubias says.
5. Would They Tell You If They Saw Something Inappropriate?
You may think they would, but laying the groundwork for that conversation could make the difference between them feeling comfortable enough to tell you that they had come across, say, a very sexual image and keeping it to themselves out of fear that they have done something wrong.
But the point of #BeInternetAwesome — and the tone of the approach — Covarrubias says, is to come from a positive place, not a place of parental hysteria that will scare your kids and or make them want to tune out the conversation. The idea is that if you talk to your kids in a safe, calm, rational way about being responsible online, they’ll use the internet in safe, calm, rational ways. Sounds awesome, right?