Of young people’s (not just digital) citizenship

By Anne Collier

This being Digital Citizenship Week in the US, here’s a view of it that isn’t typically heard by parents and K-12 educators here. It’s the view from youth themselves, as captured by scholars in the new book Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East, edited by Linda Herrera at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Routledge 2014). I hope that – even though entire curricula have been written for digital citizenship instruction in K-12 schools – perspectives like this will help everyone exposed to them see that we are far from ready to define digital age citizenship, much less dictate to young citizens what it is.

Cover of Wired Citizenship bookWe – all of us, worldwide – can’t yet be sure what citizenship, digital or otherwise, is becoming in this rapidly shrinking, networked world. “Compared to previous generations, youth coming of age in the digital era are learning and exercising citizenship in fundamentally different ways,” writes Linda Herrera in Harvard Educational Review.

She cites more than a dozen scholars who see in this generation “patterns of sociability, cognition, and values distinct from generations who came of age in a pre-digital era. Members of this cohort, born between the late 1970s and the early years of the millennium, function in ways that are more horizontal, interactive, participatory, open, collaborative, and mutually influential. Their tendency to be more collectivist oriented has led some to call them the ‘we’ generation.”

It’s not that national citizenship is going away, of course. But the ways people of all ages think about and act on it are changing as we connect across borders, cultures, jurisdictions and other traditional lines of division. For one thing, it’s much easier to find examples of what’s possible – what has been achieved, how it has and who can help – in a constantly updated global database of humanity’s collective knowledge and social action.

If we want to support the members of this very connected generation that we love as they find their identities, roles and contributions in a networked world, certainly we have to understand their media tools and environments and help them use them to their advantage as well as for the social good.

Growing sense of participation

So consider how using connected media itself – not being taught about it – sensitized, informed and otherwise educated three young Egyptians, three of many young people across the Middle East mentioned in Herrera’s paper:

Learning social norms. Playing World of Warcraft helped Murad overcome depression [he’d been marginalized in offline life because uncomfortable with “outwardly religious … conservative youth culture”] connect with people in other countries, learn English and “learn culture”: “During a game [Murad] taunted his opponent through the chat function [in WoW] with a homosexual slur. Other players immediately called him out for being homophobic. Their reactions took him by surprise and led to exchanges about discrimination and other related issues. The community of players formed and enforced its own codes of civility. Some of his online players became friends and even visited him in Egypt during their holidays.”

Connection, context & perspective-taking. “Mona, a 22-year-old agriculture student and amateur graphic artist” who grew up in a semi-rural Egyptian town, “recalls the excitement in 2006 when her parents bought a computer … for her and her siblings. She especially relished the time she spent in chat rooms, first ICQ and then Yahoo. Her English was limited, but that did not deter her. She was always curious about other cultures and dreamed about getting to know people from different parts of the world. Being from a religiously conservative family, she wasn’t sure if she should chat with boys online. But when a guy from New Zealand was in a chat room asking questions about Islam, she began an online friendship “to talk more about Islam.” She later “chatted several times with Israelis because, as she explained, ‘we hear a lot about them in the news, and I wanted to know about them firsthand. It was normal. There was no big problem’…. For Mona, chat rooms provided an opportunity to talk about and spread Islam, to broaden her social circles, and to seek out contrary positions in order to form her own opinions about important issues of the day.”

An outlet, self-actualization, community. “Haisam, an Egyptian who spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia, returned to Egypt with his family when he was 13. He loved math and engineering but found that the Egyptian school system stifled rather than stimulated his avid mind. He searched outside of school for ways to feed his interests. Peer-to-peer file-sharing supplied him with an endless and free, albeit illegal, supply of music, games, videos, films, and e-books. For Haisam, the computer became ‘like a gateway to heaven.’ For over a year he spent most of his waking hours downloading music and lyrics and meeting people with similar interests in online forums. He joined a group of Arabic music aficionados and worked on transferring 125 years of Arabic music recordings into digital format. If not for their labor, this music might have been lost.”

From self-actualization to social action

That was just the beginning for Murad, Mona and Haisam (names changed for privacy), as their self-actualization and sense of community developed in the pre-social-media period of their lives (read Herrera’s paper to see what happened next for them and other young people). Since then, social activists have added many digital media tools to their toolboxes, I learned at the Internet Ungovernance Forum in Istanbul last month, but Facebook was huge at the turn of the decade, as anybody who watched international news well knows.

“In March 2008 there were some 822,560 Facebook users in Egypt, and by February 2011 that number grew to more than 5.6 million,” Herrera reports. “During the early months of the Arab revolts alone (between January and April 2011), 2 million new Egyptian users joined Facebook. An overwhelming 75% of Egypt’s Facebook users were now between the ages of 15 and 29, and 36% of those users were female.” One young person told her that banning Facebook “would be like ‘blocking the air to my lungs.’ The social networking site had become an extension of his social, political, psychological, and even spiritual life.”

A tool for competency not control

We can’t reduce our vast, rapidly evolving idea of citizenship to “netiquette,” “responsible use of devices” or curating a “digital footprint” – it’s not a classroom management or bullying prevention tool. It’s not “Internet safety” rebranded. Even without the fear tactics employed by Internet safety “education” for more than a generation in some countries, dictating to young citizens what they should or should not do does not model democratic principles or honor their participation rights (enshrined in a convention that so far has been ratified by 194 countries).

Using “digital citizenship” as a tool of control does not inspire citizenship; on the contrary, it’s likely to disengage the citizens – and clip their wings. We need to enable their citizenship by helping them develop the literacies they know they need for effective use of connected digital tools to better themselves, their communities and their networked world. And let them tell us what citizenship looks like as their view and practice of it – and they – grow.

Related links

  • Another contributor to Wired Citizenship, Middle East scholar Amro Ali at the University of Sydney, blogged about it, writing, “In today’s digital age, in which formal schooling often competes with the peer-driven outlets provided by social media, youth all over the globe have forged new models of civic engagement, rewriting the script of what it means to live in a democratic society.” The book, he continues, “describes how youth are performing citizenship, innovating systems of learning, and re-imagining the practices of activism in the information age.”
  • “In exploring how to respond to the online lives of children and young people, safety must sit alongside, and be integrated with, a broader range of considerations, including promoting positive uptake of online opportunities, promoting skills relevant to a digital economy, and encouraging the development of accessible, democratic online spaces in which rights to both play and participation, amongst others, can be realized,” wrote Tim Davies of Practical Participation (“promoting social justice through participation”), Sangeet Bhullar (of WiseKids.org.uk) and Terri Dowty (then of Action on Rights for Children) in their 2011 paper “Rethinking Responses to Children and Young People’s Online Lives,” well before I read EU Kids Online’s Sonia Livingstone and Brian O’Neill’s paper on a framework for youth digital rights and wrote about that unknowingly but wholeheartedly in support of “Rethinking Responses.”
  • New Zealand’s premier Internet safety organization, Netsafe, defines digital citizenship as “the skills, knowledge, and values required to be an effective, ethical and safe user of ICT.”
  • Americans who’d like to see the US join the 194 countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can sign a petition to that end here.
  • “FB privacy & the social media ‘collective unconscious’ (so far)”
  • “For solving social problems: The social media jujitsu remix”
  • Cross-cultural in so many ways: Lessons from ‘Digitally Connected’,” a multicultural conference of scholars, NGOs, UNICEF and Internet companies at Harvard’s Berkman Center last spring
  • Back in 2010: “Why ‘digital citizenship’ is a hot topic