Photo by Allan Foster.
By Nicholas Wu
The pandemic forced hundreds of thousands of students to start using electronic devices at earlier ages than ever before. An organization dedicated to alerting young people to the dangers on the Internet is hoping to train them at an earlier age.
The Privacy Educators Program (PEP), run by Fordham’s Center on Law and Information Policy, seeks to inform students about the importance of online privacy before they adopt bad habits, said its director Andrea Flink, a Senior Fellow at the center: “Internet privacy is really an abstract concept and something that needs to be taught young.” The program, which is taught by Fordham law students, has been introduced to multiple elementary schools, including PS 191 on West 61st Street.
The program was started in 2013 and was originally taught to seventh graders. But the educators realized that by the time these students were in middle school, they had already become accustomed to some of the exact tendencies that PEP was advising against. As a result, the program is now working with 4th and 5th graders.
The teaching spans five weeks during which the students are taught about cyberbullying, location tracking, and appropriate guidelines for posting, among many other issues. What most students do not entirely understand, as Flink explained, is that every app — whether it be Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, or even video games — is collecting personal data. But keeping a balance between sounding like an alarmist and allowing students to use technology freely is one of the aspects of PEP that is prepared most carefully by the instructors. “We’re not trying to scare them; we’re trying to give them the tools to think critically before they post something online,” said Flink. And by polling the classrooms at the beginning of the program, the instructors can adapt the curriculum to most accurately reflect the recent trends in technology while still maintaining the core message of thinking before acting.
The response to the program among the students has been positive. Flink notes how former students frequently come up to the instructors when they return to teach the program to a new class, and proudly exclaim that they didn’t use the public WiFi on the subway, they changed their password to something stronger, or they turned off location tracking on their phone.
PEP is actively seeking to expand their curriculum to other schools and to parents as well. Their curriculum is open source, meaning that all the materials necessary to teach the course are available for educational purposes free of cost at their website: www.fordham.edu/privacyeducation. Flink believes that PEP’s best plan for expansion is for word to get out and for more schools to teach the program, as well as for parents to be more aware about privacy education. She concluded, “We would teach it in more schools if we had more [law students], but if any school wants to offer our curriculum, we encourage that, and I’m available for guidance.”