From users to citizens: How to make digital citizenship relevant

How digital citizenship is protective and relevant to youth – and how to make it even more so.

By Anne Collier

“Digital citizenship” is a rapidly expanding conversation in the online-safety field. Is it one we should be having? Is it relevant to young people, the “citizens” we all have in mind? On a recent conference panel, Prof. Tanya Byron of the UK seemed to suggest not – too abstract or complicated maybe. I agree with her a lot of the time but not on this point, because I think digital citizenship is what makes online safety relevant to the people Net safety is supposed to protect.

In a participatory media environment, focusing on citizenship helps everybody understand that: 1) they’re stakeholders in their own well-being online, 2) they’re stakeholders in their community’s well-being as well as that of fellow participants (because in a user-driven environment safety can’t logically be the sole responsibility of the community’s host), and 3) they have rights and responsibilities online. Digital citizens have a right to the support of fellow members, as well as of the community as a whole, and in turn the responsibility to provide support as well as cultivate a supportive environment. As my friends at Childnet International in London say at, digital citizenship is about “using your online presence to grow and shape your world in a safe, creative way, and inspiring others to do the same.”

Two other recent conversations got me thinking about how digital citizenship might be made even more relevant to youth:

* A student on a conference panel saying, “My friends and I never read the terms of service.” (Of course not; they’re written by lawyers.)
* A colleague in another country wondering if “citizenship” means the same in his country as in mine. (“Digital citizenship” was mentioned a lot at last month’s Safer Internet Forum attended by representatives from more than two dozen European countries plus Brazil, New Zealand, and Malaysia – see this account.)

Continuing the latter conversation, I asked my colleague what it meant to people in his country and, reflexively, he mentioned “rights and responsibilities.” We all need to talk about this more, probably, but based on what I heard at the Safer Internet Forum and in this conversation, we have a viably universal, workable concept.

What do terms of service have to do with it? On the social Web, services (games, social network sites, virtual worlds, etc.), the communities of users they host, and users themselves all have rights and responsibilities. So I suggest that…

* “Terms of service” are really Statements of Rights & Responsibilities but might at least incorporate language to that effect and have terms of both the site’s rights and responsibilities and those of its users. Maybe this would help make the statements more readable. It might also help shift thinking away from a narrow legal focus to a broad participatory approach that fits the current media environment (I wrote a bit about community self-regulation or “the guild effect” here).
* Service-wide support. Social media services such as Facebook, MySpace, Xbox Live, World of Warcraft, and cellphone carriers support good citizenship, or user rights and responsibilities, not just in terms of service but also in features, documentation, moderation and customer service, and marketing – as an industry best practice.
* Support at home & school. Parents and educators blend the online and digital versions of citizenship into conversations and lessons about behavior, empathy, social norms, ethics, and critical thinking from the moment children begin using technology, at least in preschool.

The equation’s incomplete without all the above, I think. For example, we can’t reasonably expect a social site’s support of citizenship to end bullying behavior all by itself, but it can help when backed up by similar messaging in users’ homes and schools. But “what’s the big deal about citizenship?” we might be asked by teens and Tanya Byron. The simplest answer in the research is that people who engage in aggressive behavior online are more than twice as likely to be victimized (see “Digital risk, digital citizenship”), so the civility of good citizenship is protective.

But Tanya, I’m right with you: If “digital citizenship” becomes just another term adults use or yet another “subject” students have to learn – if youth don’t see it as their ticket to full, rich, healthy participation and membership in the highly participatory media, culture, and society they find compelling – we’re talking to ourselves.

Related links

* “A [proposed] definition of digital literacy & citizenship” for educators to consider (send your thoughts to anne[at]!)
* A team of 12- and 13-year-old New Zealanders won that country’s national Community Problem Solving Competition with their project “Creative Cyber Citizens,” which uses Hector’s World to teach younger students digital citizenship. Hector’s World is an internationally recognized educational site designed to teach 2-to-9-year-olds online safety and digital citizenship, the latter now being the main focus Net safety in New Zealand. The winners will now work with a college in NZ to raise money to compete in the International Future Problem Solving finals in the US next May.
* “Parents have rules to follow online too,” a post in the Facebook blog by parent and editorial director Liz Perle. Great tips! I only add one: Approach your children/students and their social media use with respect.
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth”

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Addendum: The social-norming piece

This is an addendum to the commentary above. Would appreciate any/all feedback in our forum or via anne[at]

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.

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