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Photo: Breaking Sky Productions

by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Listen to “High school debate can teach online and offline civility” on Spreaker.
Larry speaks with Silicon Valley Debate League’s Robert Burns (1 minute)

I had 20 years of schooling with classes in lots of subjects, but the two most important ones I took were junior high school typing and high school forensics. That typing class not only taught me the skills I needed to use a typewriter in high school, college and graduate school, but gave me a big head start when it came to using computer keyboards. Unfortunately, it didn’t prepare me to type on phone screens, which I still struggle with.

I have an even more special place in my heart for what I learned in that forensics class and the various speech and debate tournaments I entered in high school. That experience gave me the confidence I sorely needed at the time, as well as the research, critical thinking, and speaking skills that have been extremely handy during my career. It literally changed my life.

So, when the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League ( asked me to moderate a panel at its 2023 fundraising gala, I was delighted to do anything I could to help today’s generation of young high school debaters gain the skills that made such a difference in my life.

SVUDL works primarily with schools that serve mostly low-income families in San Jose and the Peninsula. It’s affiliated with the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, working with districts and community partners as a way to promote “debate as a solution for students who have become disengaged from academics.” SVUDL currently serves more than 2,000 students in 19 Silicon Valley high schools, according to executive director Rolland Janairo. In the last school year, students attended 30 tournaments in person or online, according to the group’s 2023 impact report.

Tech issues

I recently had the opportunity to attend one of their tournaments, where students debated a wide range of topics, including some that were added in partnership with my nonprofit organization, ConnectSafely, as part of our 2024 Safer Internet Day program. Tech-related topics included whether parental consent should be required for minors to access social media sites, whether government regulations should require that children be limited to two hours a day on social media and whether AI does more harm than good in schools.

These are among the many important and controversial issues that policymakers, the tech industry and other stakeholders are grappling with, but too often, the only voices we hear are those of adults.

Understanding both sides

In these high school debates, students must be prepared to debate all sides of the issue, which requires them to think through the implications of any proposed policy, with the ability to argue for the side they are assigned and fully understand the other side of the argument.  For this tournament, they were given the topics several days in advance, but didn’t know which side they would take until 30 minutes before the debate.

“They have to be able to switch sides and see the issue from all perspectives,” said SVUDL director of programming Robert Burns. “That makes it so that when they go out into the world to advocate for themselves or for their community, they learn that the only way they can engage in advocacy is by recognizing the strengths of their opponent and learning how to think through what compromises can look like.”

It’s an important skill, not only for the students themselves but for our democracy. Too many adults understand only one side of an issue, which makes it harder to understand the opposing view and respect those who disagree.


As with many policy debates, the issues facing us regarding tech are often nuanced. For example, requiring parental consent for teen access to social media would help protect some teens, but it might harm those whose parents, for a variety of reasons, would neglect or refuse to provide them access to potentially very healthy and affirming online conversations and communities. Yes, AI can be harmful, but it can also be very helpful if used correctly. Encryption, a subject for a future debate, can protect some children from harm while making it harder for law enforcement to catch abusers who harm children.

I was once asked to weigh-in on whether a company should allow users to post videos of atrocious acts of political violence. Some said they were extremely disturbing, especially for children. Others argued that they help create awareness and outrage about horrendous acts. Both sides had a point, which led to some compromises, such as considering the motives of the person or group posting, not showing them to younger users, and adding a warning label for anyone who might be triggered by them.

Life skills

The skills students learn in debate can come in handy later for these students, just as they have for me. Every citizen, even if they never run for public office, should be equipped with the ability to understand complex issues so they can make informed decisions, effectively advocate for causes they care about and, as voters, understand all sides of issues and make informed decisions, even if they don’t get everything they want from whatever choice they make.

And even if you were never in a debate program, chances are you will be in a position to debate or at least discuss issues on social media or in person.

Knowing how to understand all sides of an issue can help you be more effective and more civil, and these skills don’t just apply to policy issues. It can also apply to our relationships with friends, loved ones and colleagues. Learning how to understand the other person’s position and to respectfully argue your own point of view can go a long way toward better relationships, a better society and more respectful dialogues.

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