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Digital citizenship the ‘killer app’: How

Elaborating on my comments last week at the annual Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) conference in Washington, D.C. (11/10/10)….

Digital citizenship is the killer app of online safety – if (big if) we don’t complicate it too much. A big if because those of us who did not grow up in the current media environment (the ones who create terms like this and implement programs around them) tend to believe that anything involving the Internet or digital media is new and about unfamiliar technology and therefore needs professional development, special curricula, policies and maybe even laws for widespread adoption.

But if all the above is what’s needed to get the adult population on this path to effective Internet safety (effective because relevant to and respectful of youth), then let’s move forward with it – there are some good curricula already in the works (e.g., see this). To get to the whole point of digital citizenship, though, let’s lop off the “digital” part and the “online” in “online safety.” Consider how basic good citizenship – treating oneself, others, and one’s community with respect and kindness – increases well-being and therefore social functionality and ultimately success in our lives wherever we go, including online. [As for special classes in online safety or digital citizenship or literacy, think about this: If kids can just practice collaborative skills and critical thinking about information and behavior in new media in regular social-studies, language arts, science and other classes, why would they need an additional class about how to do this?]

Why a killer app?

But why the killer app of online safety and how could that be practicable? First – to appeal to the skeptics among us right away – I didn’t say it’s the all of online safety; it’s just baseline, or fundamental, online safety that’s relevant to all youth. Because, just as in offline life, not all youth are equally at risk online, we save more targeted and specialist Net-safety prevention and intervention for the youth who are more at risk (online as well as offline). This matches the levels of prevention of the public health field, which now needs to include risk prevention and intervention online and in social media.

The qualities and behaviors of good citizenship have always amounted to the “killer app” of growing up – what everybody learns first at home and then in school. Their application helps us navigate life, relationships, academics, work and everything else. And it now helps our children navigate these in the online environment too. And then in 2007, research published in the Archives of Pediatrics showed us that being good to one another online is protective – not just a nice way to be – when it showed that aggressive behavior online more than doubles the aggressor’s risk of victimization.

Agents for change & the public good

I’ve written about where we need to go from here with citizenship-learning online – from kindness and respect to ethical behavior – as the Harvard School of Education’s GoodPlay Project is exploring. It’s a matter of simple logic: We will not attain widespread adoption of either, civil or ethical, behavior, until we help young Internet users develop a sense of efficacy in their Internet use. Young people need to see that their Internet use is consequential. “Efficacy” is the GoodPlay researchers’ word; another word I’d like to see in this discussion more, one I’ve been using for a couple of years, is “agency,” which Webster defines as the capacity to act or to exert power. In other words, we need to help them find and use their powers as agents for good in their online and offline communities. The very first baby step in that process is for us to take their use of the Internet and digital media seriously; it’s not just a new form of entertainment, it’s part of their lives. If we don’t take their online participation seriously, how can we expect them to?

Elements of citizenship I’ve heard so far

In the context of youth online, even “citizenship” all by itself, without the digital part, captures our imaginations. It seems to make us want to start with a conceptual clean slate and come up with a definition that applies to youth (maybe because this discussion was so negative in the ’90s and ’00s). And so, all around the world, online-safety experts are putting forth definitions. A year ago, in a conversation about digital citizenship with my colleague Armando Novoa of ASI in Mexico, he almost reflexively mentioned “the rights and responsibilities” of using the Net, and that’s the definition I see the most. The third element referred to a lot, sometimes as a synonym for “digital citizenship” (especially in the US), is “civic engagement” (see this 2007 book and this from educators Matt Levinson and Deb Socia). At the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Lithuania this past September, Martin Cocker of Netsafe in New Zealand said “online safety doesn’t work,” and so it’s all about digital citizenship (or “citizenry,” as he said it) in his country now. Will Gardner of Childnet in London referred to three components of digital citizenship: participation and access (by and for youth) and collaboration (of users, industry, government, schools and parents). One could argue that Childnet’s three elements are a more granular version of “civic engagement.”

Children’s rights lead to children’s safety

But going back to rights and responsibilities: A year ago – after writing about youth agency in “Online Safety 3.0” and then hearing British Member of Parliament Derek Wyatt speak of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the 2009 FOSI conference – I suggested that all the rights and freedoms that the Convention provides for children (including “the freedom to speak, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds … through media of the child’s choice”) need to be transferred online. The mere right to be safe online, as we so often hear from online-safety advocates – including a member of the European Parliament at the IGF – is neither adequate nor respectful of children’s rights. Of course it’s essential, but it’s not enough.

Last week my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid wrote eloquently in the Huffington Post that Americans seem to “care more about parents’ and schools’ rights than children’s rights” in the context of online safety, and I don’t think this is exclusive to Americans. Not only does this seeming lack of interest in children’s right of expression represent a double standard. It is also detrimental to their online safety. Why? Because first it does not allow youth the agency and efficacy that, as we see from the GoodPlay research, turns users into citizens – stakeholders in their own well-being and that of their online communities. And it sends them the message that we don’t take seriously a medium that they find compelling and that is already fully embedded in their lives.

Digital citizenship is the killer app of online safety for a number of reasons:

  • It’s the most basic level of safety for all children, whether or not they’re at-risk youth offline, and needs to be a universal value, just as citizenship is.
  • It puts the power of constructive Internet use in their hands, bringing balance to the online-safety discussion and making it more relevant to youth, who have a much more balanced experience of the social Web than we’ve given them credit for, and
  • It’s for us as much as them. What all the elements we’ve all come up with so far point to is the potential 1) to free up young people’s efficacy and constructive engagement and 2) to help us adults move from fear to respect – to take seriously their ability to use social media to effect change for the good in their own lives and in the world.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is a fantastic website, might you be interested in doing an interview about how you designed it? If so e-mail me!

    September 10, 2011
  2. Excellent post! Inspired by comments from last week’s FOSI conference, I’m writing up some of my thoughts on how our organization is teaching children in the digital age.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about dropping the “digital” and “online” and when I teach, I even drop the “cyber.” I find that doing so when I speak to youths makes the subject matter much more personal and that they seem to respond to “phenomena” like the notion of cyberbullying as if it is just that… some phenomena out there in the ether that they have no personal ownership of. Ah, but bullying? That they’re familiar with. I see this approach working quite well because the primary feedback we’ve received is that the children wish they had more time to ask us questions after our assemblies which are already heavy on Q&A time.

    Anywho, thank you so much for the work you continue to do in this area! Your candor and insights are exactly what’s needed to help move adults from phenomena to practical instruction and education.

    November 15, 2010

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