It’s becoming increasingly clear that – in a highly participatory environment such as the fixed and mobile social Web – risk and citizenship are directly related. Risk-prevention experts show how online community mitigates risk. Inner thoughts are expressed outwardly, and peers notice a friend in crisis and get help by any means possible. Online social networks are powerful tools for peer help and protection. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has data back several years showing how effective social network sites are as sources of referral (see a post of mine from back then, “The social Web’s ‘Lifeline'”).
Helping one another is one vital aspect of digital citizenship. Researchers such as Harvard education professor Howard Gardner (second link below) are now turning up important findings on how youth function in digital communities. Their work is the kernel of the digital citizenship instruction and practice that will increase safety and trust in an environment that increasingly mirrors the “real” world (for youth, the fixed and mobile social Web is not something separate from “real life”). How will digital citizenship increase online safety? It includes the ethics, civility, empathy, social norms, and community awareness that can mitigate aggression and other results of online disinhibition. We know from the work of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH, for example, that “youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization” (see their analysis in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine). In any case, digital citizenship by definition teaches the community awareness that protects individuals, enables collaboration, and promotes civic engagement.
Both of these features illustrate the clearer definition of “online safety” that has emerged since the end of last year, with the help of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. The ISTTF’s report, which summarized all online-safety research to date, showed that 1) not all youth are equally at risk online, 2) the youth most at risk offline – of sexual exploitation, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, etc. – are those most at risk online, and 3) young people’s psychosocial makeup and family and school environments are greater predictors of real-life risk than the technologies they use. Now we’re finding that the use of those social technologies is not only not the best predictor of risk, it can be 1) an avenue to help both immediate and enduring and 2) a means for learning and practicing good citizenship.
In other words, yes, dysfunctional, anti-social behavior is acted out online as well as offline but so is the exact opposite behavior – and the latter can be reinforced for the well-being of individuals and society (see “Geeking out for democracy” at media scholar Henry Jenkins’s blog.
The two features: