By Anne Collier
About a year ago I heard a great story on NPR about a successful risk-prevention program at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville that “relies on peer counseling, social events and solid information to challenge misperceptions students have about drinking” instead of the less successful rules-and-enforcement programs at most colleges and universities. I thought, “Yes! That’s what online-safety education needs!” We’d been working on the “solid information” part for years (often hobbled by misrepresentation of the research in order to scare the public). But more emphasis needed to be on the social and peer-counseling part of this risk-prevention discussion, I thought.
That’s where digital citizenship comes in. Peer mentoring, social norming, being there for friends engaged in self-destructive behavior, being the sort of bystander who helps end bullying situations demonstrate the “Internet safety” of the participatory Web. Community – a sense of belonging – further reinforces that peer support. Belonging to, conscious citizenship in, a community is protective. I think that kind of peer support might be more automatic or reflexive in communities of strong shared interest like a World of Warcraft guild, a writers group, or fandom, but if the public discussion about Net safety encourages “users” to view themselves as “citizens” or stakeholders in their communities’ well-being, we may see more of this in the huge, more general “spaces” like Facebook and MySpace too. After all, these sites aggregate smaller affinity communities, and Facebook is just a giant collection of its members’ social networks, each its own mini community.
So maybe – if we all really focus our messaging and education on this protective, empowering approach, on citizenship – “Internet safety” will be largely preventive (of course with intervention for youth engaging in risk), meaningful to young people, a support rather than a barrier to 21st-century teaching and learning in their schools, and part of the solution to eating-disorder, self-harm, and other self-destructive community online.