A child’s self-destructive behavior: Test for ‘digital citizenship’

The “Jessi Slaughter” story is a textbook example of why digital-citizenship instruction needs to be a national priority – and points to a good test for its effectiveness down the line.

By Anne Collier

The story of “Jessi Slaughter” last week is a textbook example of what digital-citizenship instruction* needs to address: digital-age self-destructive behavior. Harassing and threatening others (whether or not in retaliation, as was part of Jessi’s story) is self-destructive because, as the research shows, aggressive behavior online is very likely to lead to victimization online (see Archives of Pediatrics and “Digital risk, digital citizenship”).

By all accounts, this 11-year-old child (“Jessi” was her screen name) was left on her own to figure out how and who to be online, through her bedroom computer and Webcam, which she used to talk to peers and anybody else “out there” watching and listening in the videochat site Stickam.com and YouTube. She was harassed and she very publicly harassed back, using violent language. When her father did get involved, he engaged in the same kind of behavior she used, drawing even more negative attention to his daughter. Now, after the girl had been placed under temporary police protection, a detective will be coming to her house to teach her how to use the Internet safely, ABC News reports.

Why can’t advice that helps kids (like this advice to parents from authors Annie Fox and Rosalind Wiseman) be as viral as the behavior that hurts kids? Here’s what needs to be viral (help spread the word!): When we’re talking with kids who say it’s ok to be mean because “everybody’s mean,” here is what we need to help them see:

“If you are going to be someone who has self-agency in the world, if you in your own way believe you have an obligation for yourself and others to live in the world with dignity, and that you have a moral compass,” Wiseman told Fox in a podcast, “if you want that ability, then you have to be able to challenge the things that are ‘normal’ but are not right….

How can we help our children with that?

“I think the role of adults,” Wiseman adds, “is to pierce this bubble that all of this [mean behavior] is normal now…. It’s our role to say, ‘No, actually it’s not ok, and you’re completely in your right to be upset about it.” When teens say social aggression is normal, “they are reflecting a culture – both online and offline, at home and at school, involving adults as well as kids – in which there has been too much acceptance of flaming, dissing, gossiping about people we know and don’t know” – too much negative social norming that has got to be addressed (see this about the vital role of positive social norming). It will take time, but I see no other way but to change the culture – by modeling good citizenship and teaching it to our children and students in real life, on cellphones, and in social media.

The question is, will (digital and offline) citizenship instruction mean that fewer kids will be left on their own to figure out how to present themselves and their views online? Will it lead to fewer kids engaging in behavior that threatens and attracts threats and mockery from others? I so hope so. I know that’s the goal. I hope that digital-citizenship instruction will be successful in teaching civility, perspective-taking, and ethics, as well as respect for self and others. Digital citizenship needs to get students to the place where they’ll watch video of people acting out online and say, “Duh, who would ever do that?”

*In its report to the US Congress last month, the Online Safety & Technology Working Group called for the teaching of digital citizenship, pre-K-12, as a national priority – because, in a social-media environment, children post and produce content too much too fast to stay safe while avoiding the responsibility of protective behaviors such as civility and critical thinking (I wrote about the report as the OSTWG’s co-chair in “OSTWG report: Why a living Internet?”).

Related links

* As for how to teach wise Webcam use, don’t miss Hector’s World’s tips for parents and teachers of children 2-9 for talking with your kids about Webcams (Hector’s World, in which Hector’s a dolphin, is an educational virtual world that’s all about privacy, safety, and citizenship in the digital age)
* “Videochatting kids spied on via their Webcams” earlier this month
* “The school district that logged 13,000 photos of students’ homes” this past May
*ChatRoulette: Heads up, parents!” last February
*Live videostreaming from phones,” April ’09
*Webcams: Positive, negative,” April ’09
*Videochat at home,” February ’08
*Stickam: Reported ties with porn biz,” July ’07
*Be aware of Stickam,” February ’07

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