From Users to Citizens: How to Make Digital Citizenship Relevant
How digital citizenship is protective and relevant to youth – and how to make it even more so.
"Digital citizenship" is a rapidly expanding conversation in the online-safety field. Is it one we should be having? Is it relevant to young people, the "citizens" we all have in mind? On a recent conference panel, Prof. Tanya Byron of the UK seemed to suggest not – too abstract or complicated maybe. I agree with her a lot of the time but not on this point, because I think digital citizenship is what makes online safety relevant to the people Net safety is supposed to protect.
In a participatory media environment, focusing on citizenship helps everybody understand that: 1) they're stakeholders in their own well-being online, 2) they're stakeholders in their community's well-being as well as that of fellow participants (because in a user-driven environment safety can't logically be the sole responsibility of the community's host), and 3) they have rights and responsibilities online. Digital citizens have a right to the support of fellow members, as well as of the community as a whole, and in turn the responsibility to provide support as well as cultivate a supportive environment. As my friends at Childnet International in London say at Digizen.org, digital citizenship is about "using your online presence to grow and shape your world in a safe, creative way, and inspiring others to do the same."
Two other recent conversations got me thinking about how digital citizenship might be made even more relevant to youth:
- A student on a conference panel saying, "My friends and I never read the terms of service." (Of course not; they're written by lawyers.)
- A colleague in another country wondering if "citizenship" means the same in his country as in mine. ("Digital citizenship" was mentioned a lot at last month's Safer Internet Forum attended by representatives from more than two dozen European countries plus Brazil, New Zealand, and Malaysia - see this account.)
Continuing the latter conversation, I asked my colleague what it meant to people in his country and, reflexively, he mentioned "rights and responsibilities." We all need to talk about this more, probably, but based on what I heard at the Safer Internet Forum and in this conversation, we have a viably universal, workable concept.
Addendum: The social-norming piece
This is an addendum to the commentary above.
About a year ago I heard a great story on NPR about a successful risk-prevention program at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville that "relies on peer counseling, social events and solid information to challenge misperceptions students have about drinking" instead of the less successful rules-and-enforcement programs at most colleges and universities. I thought, "Yes! That's what online-safety education needs!" We'd been working on the "solid information" part for years (often hobbled by misrepresentation of the research in order to scare the public). But more emphasis needed to be on the social and peer-counseling part of this risk-prevention discussion, I thought.
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