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The goal for digital citizenship: Turn it into a verb!

Readers, this is turning out to be a series on digital citizenship, because the “Jessi Slaughter” story powerfully illustrated why and how much this baseline online-safety education is needed. Yesterday in Part 1, I looked at the kind of online behavior that citizenship lessons need to address and how we can help our children avoid it. Today: the goal of citizenship instruction, which hopefully starts the minute a social digital device is put in a child’s hands (or in preparation for that!)….

The “global village” is increasingly mirrored on the living Internet – the one that we the users update in real time with our thoughts, images, behavior, sociality, and productions. I hadn’t thought about the overused global-village metaphor in a while, but it resurfaced at the end of an important piece about “The End of Forgetting” in the New York Times Magazine yesterday – what it calls “the first great existential crisis [and I’d add most basic parenting crisis] of the digital age.” What we all, including and maybe especially parents, are being called on to consider is, what the indelible memory of the social Internet – if it remains indelible – does to something civilization has long valued: redemption, the chance to change or even reinvent ourselves.

The fundamental fear

Consciously, or not, whether we’re hearing about young people being tagged in inappropriate photos, texting or posting mean comments, or exploring identity in obscure sites or virtual worlds, we are deeply and justifiably worried that they won’t have a chance to learn from their mistakes and move on. Is the Internet taking second chances away from our kids?

“It might be helpful for us to explore new ways of living in a world that is slow to forgive,” Times Magazine writer Jeffrey Rosen suggests. He explores technologies in place and in development which help users erase search strings, conversations, emails, and other pieces of our digital footprints. Great: those will be helpful and may become ubiquitous. They may help us erase mistakes and do better spin control, but will they help us achieve forgiveness? Will they help us transform? Heavy questions, I know. But the answers have never felt so remote, and this – to me – is one explanation for all the fear associated with our children’s use of social media.

Back to the ‘global village’

But besides technology, and I think much more far-reaching, is the human piece of the solution – as Rosen put it, “new ways of living in a [digital] world.” That’s where “digital citizenship” comes in: It opens up some space in classrooms and in families for us to do this exploring and find ways to live together and function in communities of the digital sort.

“The central task of citizenship is learning how to be good to one another,” I’ve quoted writer A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz as saying. We have to develop – and I believe we already are slowly doing so – the social norms for living under these newly out-of-[our-]control conditions that are creating a global village in the sense that, in terms of communication and information distribution, time and distance have shrunk to nearly nothing. Redemption, forgiveness, the ability to move on come from humanity, not technology.

An ancient social norm

In the Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen points to an example in ancient times: “In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud … any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people – oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean – was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.)… Although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged. In the Talmud, people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes.”

A perfect example of a social norm that developed in order to allow people to live together and change – what 11-year-old “Jessi Slaughter” now needs and deserves and what anyone making mistakes (whether or not there’s guidance or support at home or school) while living with the relentless recall and in the close non-physical proximity of the digital age. As I wrote above, I believe such norms are developing, but this is a messy, unnerving transition time we’re in that requires a little more vigilance and a lot more tolerance, I feel, on everybody’s part. Which is why digital-citizenship education is as urgent as it’s important – why citizenship needs to be turned into a verb!

In other words, at the individual level where we all operate (in homes and classrooms), the goal is to turn users (of all ages) into stakeholders in their own and their communities’ wellbeing. Stakeholders are active, conscious participants. So at the societal level, the goal of digital citizenship is to create the positive social norms of the social Web – actively, consciously, respectfully, and collaboratively – as citizens.

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kids should always be reminded of what is expected from them while using the world wide web. Good manners online is imperative.

    November 27, 2013
  2. Orville #

    Very good article. I certainly appreciate this site.
    Continue the good work!

    December 6, 2012
  3. Kelly Ahlfeld #

    Yet another thought provoking post. Your blog should be on every parent and teacher’s RSS feed, Anne! Thanks so much for your important work.
    Inspired by you, this past year I started getting very specific with my students about how to communicate digitally — what messages are more challenging to get across without the face to face — and how to make their footprint one to be proud of. This summer, I saw Michael Wesch talk and was blown away by his words that citizenship shouldn’t just be about keeping safe and being kind but actually adding something good to the online world, and I am excited to bring that piece to my students this year.

    I so appreciate your leadership in this field, Anne.

    July 29, 2010
    • Anne #

      You made my day, Kelly – thank you. If there’s any chance Prof. Wesch’s talk was videotaped and posted on the Web, would you post the link here? Tx again!

      July 29, 2010
  4. Hi Anne

    This is a terrific post, really very thought provoking. I have have been following your blog for sometime and often found it informative. But this post has been a real ah ha moment for me.

    I had never considered the ramifications of the indelible digital memory – doubt I’m alone in this. This line of thinking adds a whole other dimension to digital citizenship and the need to embrace social technology and educate instead of fearing and banning it.

    I would like to quote extensively from your post on my blog as I think you have captured the issues really well.

    Thanks again, look forward to how you develop the digital citizenship concept some more.


    July 28, 2010
    • Anne #

      Honored that this brought an “ah ha,” Chris – thanks for your comment. Have a look at some of those “Related links” for more on digital citizenship; I’m afraid I’ve written about it so much that my readers may be wanting me to move on. Another doc that might be of interest is our “Online Safety 3.0” at NFN’s sister site,, and here I explain why we task force members called for digital citizenship instruction as a national priority in our report to Congress on June 4. Tx again for commenting!

      July 29, 2010
  5. In my opinion, this issue is just as much about “destination” as it is about education.

    While we can teach our children to be better Internet citizens and to learn the dangers of publishing unsavory content, we need to balance this education with sites, services and communities where kids can make reasonable mistakes that don’t lead to a greater personal impact on or offline.

    Kids learn by doing more then the learn by listening. We do our children a disservice by not providing access to communities where risk is mitigated by parental controls, increased user privacy and moderation.

    Only by combining education with destinations where kids can explore and make mistakes will this issue start to change. You can put all the educational content and “safety buttons” in Facebook or other sites that you want, but unless they are designed from the ground up with these issues in mind, the results will be the same.

    July 27, 2010
    • Anne #

      So agree, Tim – how do we teach digital citizenship without giving our children a chance to practice it in social media in school (why I say “citizenship” is a verb!). I think sometimes the term “social media” is scary to adults, has been stigmatized way too much in the news media and other parts of the public discourse, so we forget that there are marvelous social-media tools designed specifically for education as well as one easily and safely adaptable to it, such as Google Docs, the virtual world QuestAtlantis (designed by the Indiana U. School of Education), wikis, blogs, ePals, and on and on. Thank you for your comment!

      July 29, 2010

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