Why digital citizenship’s a hot topic (globally)

By Anne Collier

Digital citizenship keeps coming up in more and more places….

* It just came up at the Social Good Summit in New York this week
* I just co-moderated a multinational panel on it at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Vilnius, Lithuania, last week
* The European Schoolnet and the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) just announced a new category for Europe’s eLearning Awards, “Teaching online safety and citizenship”
* It figured prominently in a milestone online safety report to the US Congress last June
* It was the subject of several sessions at the International Society for Technology in Education, also in June.

And that’s just a tiny sampler. I think what we’re collectively, globally, realizing is that digital citizenship actually brings youth back into the online-safety discussion (if they were ever really there). It’s about empowerment as much as protection (yes, it’s protective too – see this). So it’s more relevant to and respectful of them as active agents for their own, their friends’, and their online communities’ good.

But there still isn’t complete consensus on its definition. Among the questions our IGF workshop raised were: Does digital citizenship replace Net safety, as New Zealand’s Netsafe.org.nz says, “because e-safety programs aren’t working” and “digital citizenry allows people to grow, innovate and succeed”? I’m right with them on that. Is it mainly the rights and responsibilities of Internet users? That’s a good place to start and an important discussion to have but doesn’t convey the all of it, I think. Is it about “learning how to be good to one another”? That’s the most basic definition, I believe, and was delighted to find two Williams College psychologists saying the same recently (see their commentary in the New York Times)? Does it include civic engagement? I’m definitely seeing growing consensus around that (e.g., see this from two prominent school administrators).

We talked over those and other aspects in the 2-hour, very multinational workshop whose panelists were from Canada, Egypt, New Zealand, the UK, and the US, with participants from Costa Rica, India, Israel, Thailand, and other countries. Our friends at Childnet, an award-winning, London-based nonprofit organization that works closely with young people, break “digital citizenship” down to “access,” “participation,” and “collaboration,” and their teen consultants – who participated in the workshop too – clearly put these aspects at the top of their citizenship priority lists, especially participation (because of their work with Childnet, these are highly civically engaged young people).

The need for youth agency

Which points to why I agree with Netsafe that digital citizenship needs at least to drive the youth-online-safety discussion. Young people will be safer online when they see that they can make a difference online and when their agency is acknowledged, respected, and guided by the adults in their lives.

While probing for ethical thinking in a study of young people aged 15-25, some Harvard University researchers heard this sobering comment from one young respondent: “Most of the time when people see something online, their main reaction is to laugh because most of the stuff on the Internet you have no sway over at all, so you just laugh and move on.” That, said Carrie James, the Harvard GoodPlay Project’s research director at this week’s Social Good Summit (see the video at Mashable, sums up “two sentiments we heard from a lot of young people”: 1) “the Internet is simply for fun” (therefore inconsequential, that teen is saying), and 2) “they feel a lack of efficacy online – if they see something unsettling they tend to ignore it or move on because they don’t feel they can change anything online.” [I believe that’s partly a by-product of constant messaging from adults in households, schools, and the news media that youth are potential victims of online dangers, rather than active agents for change and social good online. It’s also a by-product of blocking new media from school and leaving young people largely on their own in new media.]

Dr. James made the point of highlighting the “absence of moral and ethical supports for youth [from adults] in online life.” While many of the young people GoodPlay interviewed talked about adults they could turn to in their offline life, she said, “very few cited an adult presence in online decisionmaking.” Which is why we at ConnectSafely push for social media use in school: to afford youth opportunities to practice good citizenship online with their teachers’ guidance.

Why Net-safety ed doesn’t work

“For older youth,” James continued, “adults were virtually absent.” As for tweens, GoodPlay found that adults are “much more present” in their online lives, but the conversations “tend to focus on Internet safety.” Here’s why GoodPlay says online safety doesn’t work: it “focuses on consequence thinking,” the lowest of the research group’s three levels of ethical thinking: 1) consequences for self rather than self+others or community (if I do this it might have a bad effect on me), 2) moral thinking (consequences for others in interpersonal relations), and 3) ethical thinking (where digital citizenship happens – thinking beyond self and friends to consequences for community, nation, or world). In its research, GoodPlay rarely found evidence of ethical thinking among the young people it interviewed, James said.

[See this on how ethical thinking and community are protective as well as just plain good – why we need to foster what I call “the guild effect”: a sense of membership, community consciousness, or citizenship.]

From participation to meaningful participation

Youth “need to see online life as consequential, as meaningful and not simply as a joke, or for fun,” James said. We, the adults in their lives, will probably help them treat the online part of their lives more respectfully if we 1) acknowledge that their online experiences are part of their lives and 2) treated those experiences with the respect we’d like them to demonstrate. Eighteen-year-old Alice from the UK illustrated James’s point in our digital citizenship workshop at IGF. She told us that a site called Radiowaves, a UK-based safe social-network site for schools, had made a huge difference in her life. Her views and writing are taken seriously there, and her contribution has grown and she has received recognition for her work since she joined at age 14 (here’s her report from the IGF about a couple of sessions, including ours). Listening to her, it was clear to the adults in the room that she’d developed a strong, wise voice in the global conversation.

However, James says in her talk that civically engaged youth like Alice were a rarity in GoodPlay’s research sample, and that needs to change. So she closed with a challenge to adults: “Mentor youth to use social media for social good” (as Childnet does, I’d add). “Challenge the young people you know to see themselves as citizens of online communities, to use social media for something greater than themselves,” James continued, “then to move beyond mere clicks or what some people call ‘clicktivism’ to deep, sustained commitments to urgent global or local issues, to couple the online clicks they may be making to donate to a particular cause with offline action.”

The pillars of digital citizenship learning

So we may not have arrived at a definition yet, but the elements are in active discussion in many countries now. And I think digital citizenship has a goal too: full, constructive engagement in participatory media and society. Finally, I’d like to offer that there are three pillars needed for modeling and teaching digital citizenship in school, throughout the curriculum, pre-K through 12:

* Infrastructure – an online environment where it can be practiced mindfully during regular classroom work (in core-curriculum classes), e.g. Radiowaves or the educational virtual world QuestAtlantis, developed by Indiana University’s School of Education (infrastructure can be philosophical too – see this about QuestAtlantis’s Seven Social Commitments, learned in the process of learning science, social studies, language arts, etc., which I see as the ideal approach, rather than teaching digital citizenship as some sort of add-on to everyday life and learning)
* Practice – opportunities for students to practice good citizenship during classtime, and the more the better, because “digital citizenship” is a verb!
* Guidance – support of good practices from adults, including teachers and parents (support of good citizenship practices from adults, including teachers and parents (learning the social skills/literacy of good citizenship is naturally part of home as well as school life, as it always has been; we’re just adding the online part now).

So you see why digital citizenship’s such a hot topic? Not just because “online safety doesn’t work,” as Netsafe says, but also because it’s relevant to online safety’s intended beneficiaries (youth) and respectful of them because it acknowledges and builds on their role in their own wellbeing in today’s very user-driven media environment.

We’re making progress, people! 🙂

Related links

* Do watch the video of Dr. Carrie James’s 12-min. talk at the Social Good Summit, which I’d recommend to all parents and educators (a shorter version of her presentation to the Online Safety & Technology Working Group last fall is summarized on p. 3 of its report, “Youth Safety on a Living Internet”[PDF])
* “Moving Beyond One Size Fits All with Digital Citizenship”
* A new book: Digital Community, Digital Citizen, by author and educator Jason Ohler, about “how education can help prepare students for a world that will need them to use technology effectively, creatively and wisely.”
* CommonSenseMedia.org’s new (and free) digital citizenship curriculum for school
* The Internet Governance Forum and our workshop
* Released by ConnectSafely over a year ago now: “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”
* “Digital risk, digital citizenship”
* “From users to citizens: How to make digital citizenship relevant”

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