As summer vacation starts on Sunday for Israel's younger students, Education Ministry officials are grappling with one of the most important issues for children and their parents: the virtual realm.
Some 1.3 million elementary and preschool students begin their vacation on Sunday, joining 700,000 high schoolers whose vacations began June 20. Joining them are 82,000 elementary and kindergarten teachers.
With tens of thousands of students owning smartphones and tens of thousands more glued to tablet, laptop of desktop computers for hours every day, social networks have become both a front line for coping with educational matters as well as a problem or potential danger.
Education Minister Shay Piron instructed educators to discuss safe Internet use with their students before dismissing class for the last time this year. The Education Ministry recommends that parents explore the virtual world themselves, sit with their children and learn from them about this part of their lives, while explaining to their children about potential problems and dangerous situations. The ministry also recommends that parents make rules about Internet use, as well as putting the computer in a "family area" of the home in order to facilitate supervision of their children's Internet activities. In addition, the ministry recommends the use of parental control software to track children's Internet use, including blocking access to inappropriate sites.
Dr. Ofer Rimon, director of the ministry's science and technology administration, explains, "We are discovering that there is practically no child who doesn't come across something improper on the Web, offensive remarks, pictures that should not be published." He says few children have the habit of reporting. "Our education focuses on explaining to children that more than ever we must not be a silent majority," he says.
According to Rimon, parents have a major role to play, given their good intentions and experience, to be present on the Web and to provide tools to children. Parents should be interested in what their children are doing, including recognizing situations in which their children are shut inside their rooms for hours at a time in front of the computer, alter their behavior, or look depressed or isolating.
Rimon says this year his ministry is holding digital day camps for children from fourth grade and up. The day camp consists of 10 virtual meetings, 90 minutes each, in which children learn things like creating animation or editing films.
Another use of social networks is maintaining teacher-student contact during the summer break. Tal Terem, an eighth-grade civics teacher at the Shvilim Democratic School in Pardes Hannah, set up during the last election campaign a closed Facebook group for her students and gave them assignments like posing questions to Knesset candidates through their public profiles. In the end, she asked the students to create and upload an election campaign as well as short campaign films for the parties.
Terem said it was amazing to see how it was possible to make use of the Internet as a safe space. "I think we mustn't fear it," she said. "We are afraid, and we don't teach them, and then all the mistakes happen."
Terem is using the group this summer to keep in touch with her students. "I see that the moment there is a secret group, it boosts the sense of belonging to it, " she says. "Even children who aren't necessarily friends with each other chat there. They do it right. The ability to accept the other is meaningful. I really see them conversing, and slowly I'll introduce assignments."
Terem believes it is important to keep in touch with the students during the summer vacation, and social networks are an excellent tool for doing so from anywhere in Israel or the world, without having to make too great an effort.
"This idea of teachers staying in touch with students over the summer is right. They need it and thirst for it," she says, adding "I know group dialogue positively impacted their behavior toward one another on the Web. They learned how to behave, understand what others see and what they don't see, the meaning of publically displaying content. Children are in this zone and part of our job as educators is to teach them how to behave."