Children interact with various web literacy programming during Google’s Be Internet Awesome pop-up at Sunset Station.
Children interact with internet literacy programming during Google’s Be Internet Awesome event at Sunset Station. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Smith household – Rick Smith, his wife Dr. Abbie Smith, and their three young children – uses technology all the time. Because of that, Rick said it’s important to have conversations with his kids early and often about navigating the digital world.

“As a dad, I want to be able to prevent my son from being a cyberbully, and I want to help him navigate emotions when he is going to likely have to deal with that area of life at some point,” he said.

Rick, a Dallas native, drove down to San Antonio on Monday to see Google launch its bilingual digital citizenship and online safety program intended to teach children, parents, and educators such things as how to create a strong password, identify disinformation, and suss out hacking attempts.

Google representatives said its pop-up event Monday at Sunset Station downtown is the first of many such events it will stage throughout the country promoting the program, called Be Internet Awesome. The tactile and interactive activities installed at the event drove home the lesson that it’s up to students, their parents, and their educators to responsibly use the internet and teach safe practices.

Students from Barkley-Ruiz Elementary School and other children invited to the event stuck blocks inside a hole in a demonstration of building strong passwords, the more complicated combinations of blocks leading to fewer bad guys looking to steal the user’s information. In a lesson called “Don’t Fall for the Fake,” students are presented with emails and have to determine whether they are legitimate or phishing scams. Google developed a video game, called Interland, in which the main character must defeat hackers, spread kindness online, and overcome cyberbullies.

The digital safety tools also are available online at

“Teaching kids to be good digital citizens starts at home and carries forward into the school,” said Aarthi Scott, who directs emerging trends and risk management at Google. “Teaching this sort of empathetic behavior that is both in person and online goes very far in the community, and it helps create a safer and more healthy society to live in.”

Based in Mountain View, California, Google has been growing its presence in Texas over the past several years as the tech giant has moved its workforce of roughly 800 in Austin to a downtown building there. And a new 35-story building Google is reported to be eyeing in downtown Austin will be able to hold as many as 5,000 people, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Much of the work to develop its Be Internet Awesome curriculum has emanated from the company’s Austin offices, Scott said, but San Antonio provided the ideal launchpad for the program.

“San Antonio has a very different feel to it [than Austin],” she said. “It’s a very engaged and diverse population here that we want to connect with. It’s just the right opportunity for a community-level event like this.”

Debi Pfitzenmaier, the founding executive director of family coding event Youth Code Jam, said Google’s selection of San Antonio to host the first physical experience to promote its new digital citizenship program dovetails well with the work the community leaders are doing to address the so-called digital divide between those with internet access and those without. San Antonio consistently ranks among the least-connected large cities in the U.S. Federal digital access programs such as ConnectHome have deep roots in the city, and San Antonio’s Digital Inclusion Alliance convenes regularly to work on bridging the gap.

A member of the local Digital Inclusion Alliance’s steering committee, Jordana Barton said preparing young people for the digital economy is critical to the country’s success.

“That’s the only way we can achieve the promise of the internet, which was democratization, opportunity, entrepreneurship, and all of the things it really is,” Barton said. “If we address this structural barrier, we will be creating opportunities to enter the middle class. Eighty percent of middle-skill jobs require digital skills. As you go up the internet economy, well-paying jobs [require] more and more digital skills.”

When Sheri Doss’s children began using social media, it was difficult for her as a parent to keep them protected but also give them access to an increasingly central space for online communication. That’s why, as president of the Texas Congress of Parents & Teachers, she emphasizes constant education for parents on what technologies are becoming popular with students. Facebook, her kids informed her, is a social media network for “old people,” a surprising revelation as she had only established a Facebook account to monitor their use of it.

“I missed when that transition happened,” she said of the movement by teens from Facebook to platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. “There’s a lot out there, and it’s hard to keep up.”

The Texas PTA, for instance, puts together regular updates via its Media Madness program, which informs parents of things like smartphone apps that appear to be calculator programs but actually open online chat portals for talking to strangers.

“Who has the time or even know where to look for that kind of information and process it?” Doss said. “That’s the beautiful thing about PTA is we’re partnering with technology companies like this, staying up to date, and bringing that to the attention of our parents so that we can work together.”

An Austin resident and San Antonio native, Doss said San Antonio reflects the state’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. It is, therefore, the perfect city in which to blueprint an online safety program for all the state’s communities, she said.

“If it works in San Antonio, it works pretty much anywhere else in the state,” she said.

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.