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So where are we with ‘digital citizenship’ now?

Safety Summit panel

Youth & family panel at Facebook’s S. Asia Safety Summit Oct. 29, 2018: YLAC co-founder Aparajita Bharti 4th from left (photo courtesy of Cindy Southworth of

This week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion in Delhi at Facebook’s South Asia Safety Summit with YLAC India (Young Leaders for Active Citizenship). YLAC works “to increase the participation of young people in the democratic process and build their capacity to lead change,” using social media as their platform.

That is digital citizenship, right? Isn’t it necessarily citizen-sourced and therefore something collective and evolving, as well as individual? Isn’t it more about seeking and forming consensus than dictating from the top down? About learning more than teaching? Doesn’t it enable agency – the capacity to act, exercise one’s rights of participation, engage civically (as well as civilly), and effect change – rather than manage behavior? Isn’t behavior education more the domain of evidence-based social-emotional learning and bullying prevention education?

What we, adult citizens, could be teaching younger ones, is what affords citizenship now: the three literacies of our very social digital media – media, digital and social literacies (SEL) – all equally important in this digital age – and what their rights of participation are, as enshrined in the UNCRC (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)? [For details, see this on the 3 digital-age literacies, this on young people’s digital-age rights, by Sonia Livingstone and Amanda Third, and this on the “three Ps” of the UNCRC in the context of Internet safety.]

Empower the citizens

An important contribution to the discussion came in the form of a post this past week by citizenship scholar Ioanna Noula in the Media Policy Project blog at the London School of Economics. “The exclusive focus on behaviours and tech skills leaves citizen participation and empowerment out of its scope and significantly limits the potential of education to bring about change,” Dr. Noula writes, taking a look at U.S. approaches to the subject. Her post cautions against “obscuring the mission of education to promote democratic citizenship,” and comments that “proponents of digital citizenship misrepresent traditional concepts for education, including critical thinking and empowerment.”

It seemed a pivotal moment to me when, last June at the opening session of ISTE, the giant annual ed tech conference of the US-based international org and convener of that name, CEO Richard Culatta offered ISTE’s new definition of digital citizenship, with four elements: “making your community better“; “respectful debate“; “shaping public policy“; and the media literacy one, “recognizing the validity of online sources.”

Those sync up nicely with YLAC India’s 6 elements of “building capacity to lead change”: “Critical Thinking,” “Empathy”, “Leadership,” “Projects & Campaigns,” “Advocacy for Change,” and “Civic Action & Impact.” Don’t you too think all participants in digital-age citizenship work could benefit from more international, multi-cultural conversations about it?

Related links

  • In 2015, researchers at the University of New Hampshire published a study of nearly 1,000 middle and high school students (ages 11-17) designed to test the relationship between online harassment and digital citizenship, using a simple two-part definition of the term. 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.” Here‘s my writeup, which links to it.
  • “The term digital citizenship, first coined in 2004, has now become synonymous with internet safety lessons and curricula that exist in [U.S.] schools,” wrote educator Kristen Mattson in her 2016 doctoral dissertation. “Because of the newness of such curricula, little research exists on the effects of these lessons on student behavior and decision making.” In 2013, scholars at the University of New Hampshire who conducted a study of the U.S.’s most widely used Internet safety curricula found that, up to that point, Internet safety education is “a highly speculative and experimental undertaking whose success cannot be assumed” (a link to that study can be found here).
  • In 2004, social science education professor Michael Berson and early childhood education professor Ilene Berson likely coined the term “cybercitizenship,” urging in their article “Developing Thoughtful ‘Cybercitizens’” that social studies, with its “long history of preparing children and youth for their roles as responsible citizens,” be the subject area where children are taught the critical evaluation, ethics and behavior skills needed to be “citizens of our media-saturated culture” and “members of a global community.”
  • Earlier posts on digital citizenship at NetFamilyNews
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