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Digital citizenship’s missing piece

At the end of a long, thoughtful conversation on stage in Chautauqua, N.Y., last fall, public radio host Krista Tippett asked millennial author and commentator Nathan Schneider, “What makes you despair and what gives you hope?” His answer to both parts of the question focused on agency – the capacity to act, learn by doing and make change.

Nathan Schneider

Krista Tippett interviewing Nathan Schneider at Chautauqua

“I think the sense of despair I feel comes from … when people tell each other stories in which they have no agency,” Schneider said, “in which someone else has to do it for us.” This is how our society has approached youth online safety over the past 20 years, treating it as something adults had to make happen for youth, through “parental controls,” surveillance (monitoring software) and fear-laced “consequence thinking,” as Harvard University researchers put it (see this).

On the hope side of the question: “For me, the experiences of hope are often the stories … that we see in the world where people are living that agency and building the kinds of communities we need to resist the injustice that has sunk so deeply into our world,” Schneider continued. “I hope we can … learn to see that dignity that’s in all of us … to hold up those moments when we find our agency and our ability to make change.”

Agency online too

Add “social media” to that statement. We’re all too aware that the injustice in the world turns up in social media too. We know our children are among those seeing the injustice. Can we picture them having the agency and support to make change in social media and their offline communities (many already are, in fact – e.g., see this from the Today Show)?

Agency is essential not only to our children’s success but to their safety and wellbeing too. It may seem logical that agency on the part of young Internet users would be the opposite of online safety. But with it, they can take action to protect themselves and each other as well as to change unsafe conditions. Agency hasn’t come up much in the first 20 years of Internet safety with its focus on children as potential victims or bad actors needing our protection, surveillance and control.

I remember Carrie James of the Harvard School of Education, saying in a 2010 talk that what she and her fellow researchers “heard from a lot of young people” was that “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.” By representing young people as potential victims online, we disempower them, which syncs neither with youth online risk research nor with the participatory, user-driven media people of all ages are using now. How much credibility will we have with the “citizens” if we teach “digital citizenship” in environments where surveillance and control are valued over agency and participation?

To support change agents, enlist them

Young people will address injustice and cruelty online for themselves and their peers more and more when we allow them the agency needed to make it happen. #iCANHELP, the nonprofit organization I’m working with on piloting a social media helpline for schools, demonstrates this on a continuing basis. In addition to teaching digital leadership to educators and students on-site at schools (as an organization founded by educators embedded in California’s student leadership movement), they demonstrate it virtually 24/7 online, modeling it for students but also acting in solidarity with them when students “call” for help using the #iCANHELP hashtag.

change agent

Photo by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

How do they take action? They counteract negativity by piling on positive, pro-social comments right where the abuse appears (like pile-ons of kindness and respect) and sending multiple abuse reports to the social media services where it’s showing up. Sometimes the abusive content is gone before school administrators have had time to contact the helpline. That’s the ideal – more agency, less intervention, with all the social-emotional, administrative and financial costs associated with intervention.

To support young change agents…

  • Empower them (with digital and social literacy)
  • Enlist them
  • Model what you want to see in them and…
  • Act in solidarity with them, letting them take the lead in the spaces where they want change to happen.

Research backs this up

Opportunity and risk go hand-in-hand online, we’ve learned from the vast multinational, multicultural, multi-year EU Kids Online research project, and the safeguarding effect of resilience grows with exposure to risk. No one wants increased risk exposure, but neither does anyone want children to grow up in padded cells. Safety is not the end but rather the means to the end – one of the means to literacy, efficacy and success in this networked world, not just in digital media. Just as key, and just as protective, in fact, is training in digital, media and social literacy. Trying to monitor and control children’s online experiences reduces their opportunities to get there, as well as their developmental need to…

  • Engage in the risk assessment that’s a necessary part of growing up
  • Grow the internal safeguard called resilience (“It is important to support children’s capacity to cope themselves, thereby building resilience for digital citizens,” wrote EU Kids Online’s researchers in 2011)
  • Be the upstanders we ask them to be when cyberbullying happens (publicly online or privately, one-on-one with a friend needing support)
  • Explore identity and develop the self-knowledge that turns into self-actualization
  • Grow the confidence needed to change harmful social conditions around them, maybe to become leaders.

To “keep them safe” through control ultimately puts their safety at risk by removing the agency that affords hope and makes change happen. It also counters the growing body of social norms research by sending the message that their peers and their digital environments are unsafe. The social norms research shows that our children will not only be safer, they’ll also be more likely to take action for pro-social change when we give them facts, not fear, and tell them the truth that most people, regardless of age, are decent to each other online as well as offline (see this).

How does a school community foster agency?

One word: trust. Learning and agency flourish when young people feel trusted. I know some people will say trust has to be earned. That puts the onus entirely on them. We have some responsibility in this equation. Here are two schools seeing the benefits of explicitly, demonstrably trusting their students:

New Canaan High School in Connecticut shows students how Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc. can be “learning tools” as well as social tools; allows them to use the services on their own devices at school; teaches them to be “their own filters”; says to them up front as incoming freshmen, “We trust you”; and demonstrates that trust until they graduate. And trust is apparently what the school gets back.

“Freshmen kick off their first year of high school with a rigorous, self-directed, collaborative [online and offline] research boot camp project. The project includes 101 steps to develop good research habits at the beginning of their high school career,” Mind/Shift reported. “The library also has its own Google Voice phone number that students can text or call with questions at any time – ‘a message that learning does not stop after 3pm’,” the head librarian, Michelle Luhtala, said. She added that she’s “never ever had an inappropriate text” (here‘s my blog post on that).

“Without trust, the ultimate success of networked learning could be in jeopardy,” wrote the Aspen Task Force on Learning and the Internet in our 2014 report. The goal of trust is “to protect young people while empowering them to explore, express themselves, pursue their interests and succeed in their education.”

Fear defeats trust, literacy

Burlington High School in the Boston area “holds a summer session in which incoming freshmen receive their iPads and learn how to use them responsibly,” eSchoolNews.com reports. Like New Canaan High, Burlington also lets students use social media, teaching them that they’re learning and research tools as well as social tools. Jennifer Scheffer, instructional technology specialist at Burlington told eSchoolNews that she had “taught in a school that blocked students’ access to social media tools, and she said that approach was not effective at curbing cyberbullying. In Burlington, where students are exposed to these tools early on and learn how to use them responsibly, there have been very few instances of misuse.” Scheffer said that creating an atmosphere of fear around social media has the opposite effect from growing trust and responsible use, that knowing their teachers and administrators are on social media too makes students less likely to use the tools anti-socially. Scheffer added that teaching about safety and citizenship by creating an atmosphere of fear sends the message “we don’t trust you.”

But isn’t this naïve? some people might ask. There are a lot of bad actors out there, some in school communities, right? Begin with trust, said consultant and commentator Jerry Michalsky in a 2012 TEDx Talk (the example he gives is Wikipedia, which invites everyone to edit [starts with trust] and where there are bad actors but there’s also a process for dealing with them), “then let’s bake in processes that can deal with bad actors.”

Agency is the engine of citizenship

Educator Marianne Malmstrom blogged recently, “I’ve thrived, mostly, because of administrators who have trusted me. And, in turn, I have trusted my students. That has created safe spaces to explore learning and develop new curriculum.

“Trust is always inferred but maybe that is not enough. Perhaps trust is the cornerstone and the rest are all building blocks,” she continued. But whether or not it is, Malmstrom wrote, “it deserves a spotlight as a major clue to figuring out how to fix our schools. IMHO.” And I would add the secret to helping students learn, stay safe and participate as effective, engaged citizens in a networked world. Trust inspires agency, and agency is the engine of citizenship.

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