Digital citizenship reality check: Notes from Nairobi’s IGF

By Anne Collier

Asked how they’d rank “digital citizenship” on a scale of 1 to 10 – with 10 representing “very relevant and meaningful” – a youth panel from Egypt, the US, and UK ranging in age from 15 to 22 gave it a 1, two 3’s, a 5, a 6, and an 8. This was in a workshop yesterday involving young people and adults representing the Internet industry, governments, and nonprofit youth organizations from Egypt, New Zealand, the UK, and the US at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. The subject we were discussing was whether digital citizenship is relevant and meaningful to youth around the world, including developing countries.

The British teen who gave it a 1 said it “sounds distant and abstract,” and people shouldn’t distinguish between citizenship and digital citizenship anyway. Another UK teen said, “Maybe ‘participant’ is a better word than ‘citizen’.” An American university graduate newly living in Nairobi gave it a 6 saying she hopes it’ll catch on but “it’s not relevant to our generation yet.” The internationally connected Egyptian young people participating gave it a 3 and a 5, making the point that it can’t be relevant to youth unless there’s Internet access at school so it could be practiced. The American panelist who gave it an 8 said digital citizenship is “the same as citizenship now that we’re so much more connected internationally.”

Aspects of digital citizenship

When the panel’s moderator, Will Gardner, CEO of London-based Childnet International, said, “Ok, so the label on the digital citizenship jar doesn’t grab you, what about what’s in the jar?”, the panel was noticeably more positive. So what is in the jar? In my opening remarks, I’d offered five components of digital citizenship that have come up again and again in academic papers and international forums over the past couple of years:

* Norms of behavior, often called “good citizenship” or “online etiquette”
* Participation or civic engagement (also seen as community, social, or political activism online)
* A sense of membership or belonging
* Three literacies: tech or digital literacy, media literacy, and social literacy
* Rights and responsibilities – what often comes to mind when people hear “citizenship” (rights might include access and participation, freedom of expression, privacy, physical and psychological safety, and safety of material and intellectual property; responsibilities might include respect for self, others, and community; protection of others’ rights and property; learning and benefiting from the literacies of digital citizenship mentioned above).

The panel seemed to find these “jar” contents relevant, and I’m not surprised, because their remarks indicated they understand the benefits: support (based on research that shows social networks enhance wellbeing) as well as safety; self-actualization and leadership opportunities; empowerment as agents for social change; effective participation that’s meaningful to them; and opportunities for geographically unrestricted collaboration with fellow participants. Whether or not “digital citizenship” takes off, we adults need to make sure that our messaging about Internet safety supports those opportunities for children and young people.

Consensus a ways off

It was clear during our 90-minute session, though, that all active participants in this global discussion have a ways to go before we reach consensus on what digital citizenship is, much less how it can be practiced and taught. We certainly did have consensus on several things, though: 1) there is no consensus yet, among the workshop participants or in individual countries, much less worldwide, 2) youth, as some of the participatory Internet’s most active participants, have to be included in the consensus development, 3) “digital citizenship” may be a tough sell because even citizenship is a fairly abstract term in many countries and something people don’t think much about, and 4) if consensus develops among activists in Internet governance, including youth, there’s a lot of awareness-raising to do, globally, if “digital citizenship” is to become broadly meaningful. Except maybe in New Zealand (also represented in the workshop) – whose national online-safety organization, Netsafe, has completely replaced Net safety with digital citizenship in its programs and approach – it won’t be a simple matter of just swapping out online safety for a more empowering, less negative and paternalistic approach to young people’s online activity. And the biggest reason may be young people’s not unjustified suspicion that it’s a fancy new wrapper on the same old fear-based online-safety messaging.

But there’s something about social media and citizenship that seemed intuitive to the youth panelists as well as East Africans I’ve met: the power of connection and intention combined. Both youth and East Africa are all about rapid development, and when you combine that sense of purpose with the connections and informed active engagement that technology now allows, you have citizenship on a whole new level, including a more global kind. Youth know that – we don’t need to tell them. So maybe the need isn’t to make “digital citizenship” a household term but rather to make sure we adults are sincere that it’s for young people’s agency and wellbeing, not adult control.

Other highlights & takeaways

*The Internet is the future and youth are the future,” said Jonathan Ebuk of the Kampala, Uganda-based KiBO Foundation, which trains youth 18-25 in technology, business, and community development. He said that, without the Internet, KiBO couldn’t have done what it does for young people and their local communities (fostering young people’s skills and talents and embedding them in their communities for mutual benefit). “Everything is on the Net – how to write a proposal, resume, or business plan, create a powerful presentation, ways to organize people and events. Twenty years back we would’ve been behind. Now we can catch up. You only need a Net connection and you can sort it out. It gives you a roadmap to secure your future.”
* The opportunities the Internet represents to East Africans for personal and economic development was crystal clear to me this week. I heard that there are 500 million mobile phones in Africa, that – as in India – Internet access will be largely via phones, and mobile Net access is about to explode here in Kenya. Mobile banking like the services used in India is already taking off.
* If useful, “digital citizenship” may be so as a transitional term. Since different countries and cultures have different ideas of citizenship, it may be easier to work toward consensus on the online version first, even though – on the Internet – it may be a more general term referring to informed participation and activism and the behavioral norms enabling it rather than to membership in something. So…
* This global participatory medium called the Internet is forcing fresh thinking about the meaning of citizenship, possibly while also changing its definition.
* Will citizenship and human rights need to become more of a focus in schools worldwide – in the curriculum (e.g. in civics, social studies, history, government, and world cultures) as well as in what is modeled and taught as behavioral norms (online and offline) in classrooms? That’s what my colleague and fellow IGF panelist Janice Richardson of European Schoolnet in Brussels said in our workshop, and I agree with her (see this).
* A 17-year-old Briton said “We [everybody online] need to establish good social norms as quickly as possible, because that’s what we follow.” Norms have more influence over teens than top-down Internet safety messaging, he told us. And often the presentation of that messaging doesn’t help either: “We believe that scaring youth into safety online is not the way forward. Adult speakers often come across as patronizing to the younger generation.” Another panelist suggested that the best approach to working with his peers is “not scare tactics but welcome-to-the-real-world tactics.” [I wrote about the need for getting social media’s social norms more settled here.]

Related links

* Notes on digital citizenship after our IGF workshop last year in Vilnius
* “Next step: Crowd-source digital citizenship”
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”
* “Netizen’s Guide to the Internet Governance Forum” from Global Voices Online
* “IGF 2011: A Practical Guide” at

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