Digital Citizenship, Media Literacy & Child Safety

by on February 9, 2010 · 2 comments

In all my work on online child safety issues, I always try to stress how important education and media literacy efforts are. Indeed, technical parental control tools and methods, while important, should be viewed as just one part of a more holistic approach to encouraging digital literacy and digital citizenship.  In recent years, many scholars and child development experts such as Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, Anne Collier and Larry Magid of, Marsali Hancock of iKeepSafe, Common Sense Media, the Family Online Safety Institute, and many others have worked to expand traditional education and media literacy strategies to place the notion of digital citizenship at the core of their lessons and recommendations.

What does it mean? Anne Collier defines digital citizenship as “Critical thinking and ethical choices about the content and impact on oneself, others, and one’s community of what one sees, says, and produces with media, devices, and technologies.” And Common Sense Media defines digital literacy and digital citizenship as follows:

Digital Literacy programs are an essential element of media education and involve basic learning tools and a curriculum in critical thinking and creativity.

Digital Citizenship means that kids appreciate their responsibility for their content as well as their actions when using the Internet, cell phones, and other digital media. All of us need to develop and practice safe, legal, and ethical behaviors in the digital media age. Digital Citizenship programs involve educational tools and a basic curriculum for kids, parents, and teachers.

Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, had an excellent essay in The Huffington Post yesterday on “21st Century Citizenship,” that did a fine job of explaining these concepts in practical terms:

While there is a recognition that there must be a base-line of safety—using filters for younger kids and monitoring and privacy settings for the older ones—the emphasis is now placed on education, media literacy and a new kind of civics. It’s time for kids of all ages to understand and value the rights of free speech and assembly (i.e., connecting through social networking and other means) as well as an expectation of privacy and safety.

And with those rights, go an important range of responsibilities and duties. These include the need to respect others views, even if they disagree with them, to adhere to terms of service (however lengthy and obtuse) and the rules regarding fair use, flaming, accessing or uploading porn, and so on.

Just as we teach our kids to help at the scene of an accident, or to report a crime and to get involved in their local community, so we need to encourage similar behavior online. To report abusive postings, to alert a grownup or the service provider of inappropriate content, to not pile on when a kid is being cyberbullied, to be part of the solution and not the problem.

We need to use what we’ve learned about social norms to align kids and ourselves with the positive examples of responsible behavior, rather than be transfixed and drawn towards the portrayals of the worst of the web. It may be true that one in five kids have been involved in sexting, but that means the vast majority exercise good judgment and make wise choices online. The social norms field is ripe with possibilities and guidance in how to foster good digital citizenship.

That’s 100% correct. This approach must be at the center of child safety debates going forward. As Nancy Willard notes, digital citizens:

  1. Understand the risks: They know how to avoid getting into risk, detect if they are at risk, and respond effectively, including asking for help.
  2. Are responsible and ethical: They do not harm others, and they respect the privacy and property of others.
  3. Pay attention to the well-being of others: They make sure their friends and others are safe, and they report concerns to an appropriate adult or site.
  4. Promote online civility and respect.

Only by teaching our kids to be good cyber-citizens can we ensure they are prepared for life in an age of information abundance.  Talk to your kids, people!  Teach them well.

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