Learning how to navigate digital community

Some pioneering work in digital ethics and citizenship is key to online safety going forward.

By Anne Collier

“Once you enter digital media – whether through email, social networking, blogging, or playing a game – you simply don’t know how wide a community you’re part of, you can’t control that…. This is unprecedented in human history,” Howard Gardner told Education Week in this video. He went on to explain that, in the past, we all “evolved to deal with groups of 50 or 100 people whom we knew, they knew us, and our morality – how we treated them – was based on everyday [in-person] experience.” And those circles would widen as we grew up. “What’s unique about digital media and our era,” he continued, “is you can be as young as 7 or 8 and participate … in some kind of a social network site or game and you are in touch potentially with thousands and thousands of other people, and so the former lag between behaving morally toward people you know and behaving ethically toward people in the community who you don’t know – that’s been lost. To me that’s a very, very striking finding…. Once they go into digital media, people will be parts of much larger communities, and the only question then is, do they behave as good citizens or not?”

This is the psychologist and Harvard University professor of education who famously taught us about multiple intelligences. Gardner has been studying ethics and citizenship in American society for many years and most recently “Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media,” part of his MacArthur Foundation-funded GoodPlay Project. The project’s researchers asked five questions about ethics in digital media: “what is your sense of identity and how do you portray yourself to the rest of the world; what’s your stance on privacy – your own and how you should relate to others’ privacy; the issue of ownership and authorship (should that be respected or ignored in digital media?); issues of trust and credibility – whom you should trust and why you should be trusted; and what does it mean to belong to a digital community.” Gardner said that last question turned out to be the most important question of all.

I think of this work as the kernel of the study of digital citizenship, which – along with social media literacy – represents the bulk of what’s needed for “online safety” education by the vast majority of online youth going forward, those not already at risk offline (see “A new online safety: The means, not the end”). Listening to Gardner, I wonder how the two can possibly be separated – how can children learn to function appropriately and ethically in virtual communities without instruction also in media literacy? On the social, user-driven Internet, media and community have collapsed into each other.

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