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Finally defining digital citizenship: Help from top researchers

If it’s to have any real impact, “digital citizenship” needs to be clearly and simply defined. That’s what the US’s leading youth online risk researchers propose in the latest study on digital citizenship. In fact, the University of New Hampshire researchers made three recommendations:

  • ccrc2Separate it from digital literacy (Internet and technical skills) and cyberbullying prevention, which are important but more about avoiding/preventing than developing “specific online social skills”
  • Simplify it to two elements: online respect and online civic engagement (“practice respectful and tolerant behaviors toward others and increase civic engagement activities”) and…
  • Align it with youth citizenship goals (e.g., participating in community activities and addressing social injustices). A key aspect of youth citizenship the authors highlighted in the scholarship on it is “the ability to move beyond one’s individual self-interest and to be committed to the well-being of some larger group of which one is a member.” This maps to Harvard School of Education researchers’ framework for digital ethics (see this post).

Online respect and online civic engagement are directly related – the former enables the latter. “For youth, respectful behavior toward others can be considered a preliminary step in contributing to the well-being of a larger group, signaling tolerance of those with different perspectives and opinions,” authors Lisa Jones and Kimberly Mitchell write in the journal New Media and Society. They suggest, quite logically, that perspective-taking, tolerance and conflict resolution, which are skills included in social-emotional learning, are particularly pertinent to civic engagement and should be the focus of digital citizenship education.

“Educational programs could, for example, have youth practice perspective-taking and respectful, supportive actions when witnessing or participating in disagreements in the variety of online communities in which they participate,” the authors write.

Digital environments – from news curation on Twitter to classroom blogs to learning core subjects in digital games – are the ideal places to practice digital civic engagement. The authors cite the work of University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins, who has long argued that “online participatory cultures are an ideal place for learning, joining, and being a part of a collective effort to achieve a greater goal.”

Citizenship reduces anti-social behavior

To help “operationalize” good digital citizenship education, the authors conducted a study of nearly 1,000 middle and high school students (ages 11-17) to test the relationship between online harassment and this two-part definition of digital citizenship. Among other things, they found that “both online respect and civic engagement were negatively related to online harassment perpetration and positively related to helpful bystander behaviors.” Reducing online harassment and bullying shouldn’t be the sole goal of digital citizenship education (because safety is only the means to competent engagement and participation), but it certainly provides solid justification for digital citizenship instruction in our schools.

As for that instruction, the authors provide four conditions for its success: “1) It should be well-defined; 2) it should incorporate effective educational strategies such as active learning; 3) it should target specific educational goals and outcomes, and 4) the impact on intended behavioral outcomes should be evaluated.”

It’s time to take advantage of this clarity! Whether as parents, educators or online safety advocates, modeling and teaching respect and civic engagement online and offline can only increase our children’s safety and success wherever they engage with us and their peers.

Related links

  • Authors Jones and Mitchell gave two examples of programs educators might consider for online civic engagement learning: TakingItGlobal, providing opportunities to connect with other classrooms for students to collaborate in solving global challenges, and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), providing tools for engaging students in “a range of civic learning opportunities.”
  • Grounded in youth rights: A year ago, UNESCO Bangkok published a report on the state of digital citizenship education in Asia and the Pacific: “Fostering Digital Citizenship through Safe & Responsible Use of ICT,” looking at Australia, Brunei, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Two top recommendations were that any policy developed around youth digital citizenship “needs to ensure a balanced treatment of both opportunities and risks in relation to ICT [Internet and communications technology] use” and needs to support children’s rights – including “freedom of expression, access to information, education, protection, and participation as well as rights to protection against various forms of discrimination, violence, and abuse.”
  • “Digital citizenship’s missing piece”: agency (posted earlier this year)
  • “Digital citizenship: The ‘lived curriculum’”: Part 1 and Part 2
  • …and much more on the subject at Net Family News
  • A proposed “rightful” framework for youth online safety
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