To paraphrase a recent tweet from actor Reese Witherspoon, we are watching every aspect of our life become increasingly digitised. From social media avatars and the metaverse, to the rise of cryptocurrencies and digital goods, how we interact as digital citizens is fast becoming as important as the choices we make in our offline lives. And if the words and phrases at the start of that last sentence don’t mean much to you, you can be sure that they mean something to Gen Z and Gen Alpha. This blurring of the digital and in-person begins from an early age, with a 2018 study estimating that 90% of 13 to 17-year-olds are regular social media users – and a high percentage of even younger children also using a smartphone.
Educational settings have always shared responsibility for supporting young people to participate safely and positively in their communities. If life online is to continue to blend with our offline world, it makes sense for schools, colleges and universities to take the same steps to cultivate good digital citizenship too. So, what can educators do to support and encourage this? As Reese Witherspoon asks, are you planning for this digital shift?
According to Susan Halfpenny, the University of York’s Head of Digital Scholarship and Innovation, on one level digital citizenship is ‘the ability to access digital technologies and stay safe’. Effectively, anyone using digital technology and accessing the web can be counted as a digital citizen. That’s a lot of us, then. ‘[W]e also need to consider and understand the complexities of citizenship as we start to become a digital citizen,’ Halfpenny continues, ‘using digital media to actively participate in society and political life.’
Just as good citizenship requires following the rules of your community, relating positively to other people and looking after your own safety, good digital citizenship follows the same pattern. Whether it’s chatting to an advisor in an online forum about your home insurance quote, trying not to get your crypto seed phrase stolen, or posting a clip of yourself attempting the latest TikTok dance (we won’t judge!), we all have a responsibility for how we interact with the internet and those we meet on there. And with no sign that this digitalisation of life is slowing down, learning good digital citizenship is the only way that the next generation will be able to fully participate in their future communities.
Gen Z and Gen Alpha may be true digital natives, but that doesn’t mean that adults can’t teach them about how to use tech safely and positively. It’s imperative that educators understand the uses and impact of the online world on young people. It’s not about downloading and using all the latest apps and platforms (though, again, no judgement on your TikTok dancing). Young people need to know and understand the importance of communicating with kindness online, how to protect their personal data and moderate when and how often they use the internet. Cyberbullying, avoiding scams and viruses, online copyright rules, your digital footprint and the impact of using the internet on mental health and wellbeing are all things that can be taught in a classroom setting and supported by parents and carers at home. Who knows, maybe the adults will learn something new too!
So, where to start? Perhaps one of the easiest ways to get young people thinking about online citizenship is by looking at their own interactions. We know that cyberbullying is a real problem, so highlighting the fact that words said online have the same impact as words said in person is important. Emphasising that empathy, consideration and kindness can and should go beyond the classroom environment and into the digital one is a great place to begin.
Another aspect of digital citizenship that learners can tackle in a way that feels tangible Is through improving their media literacy. Learning to distinguish fact from fiction and think critically about what they read can help young people of all ages to stay safe online. Looking at news headlines together, analysing the language used and perspectives represented, examining well-known logos and the techniques brands use to sell us stuff, are all great activities to get started on improving media literacy.
Globally, the tech giants are already making moves towards encouraging more positive online experiences for learners. Google’s ‘Be Internet Awesome’ platform supports young learners to ‘make smart decisions’ and ‘be safe, confident explorers of the online world’. Microsoft has partnered with UNICEF to deliver The Learning Passport in a bid to close the technology equity gap in education and so improve global digital citizenship. At the end of 2021, Meta (previously Facebook) partnered with India’s Central Board of Secondary Education to develop a new curriculum for Digital Safety, Online Well-being and Augmented Reality (AR). This national initiative will target 10 million students and 1 million educators, with an explicit aim to ‘empower educators with new age tools and skills needed to nurture the Generation Z and Generation Alpha students into responsible digital citizens’. And there are curriculum changes happening on a more local level, too.
In Pueblo, Colorado’s School District 60 (SD60), educators are focused on equipping their learners with the tools needed for a digital future. Colorado is ranked in the top five states for new tech jobs in the US, and the education authority in Pueblo is keen for those jobs to go to as many local young people as possible. To raise awareness of the opportunities available, SD60 is piloting a new Computer Science programme for students, starting in elementary school. As well as teaching practical skills like coding, robotics and app design, this programme has digital citizenship as a core component. With the programme’s focus on creating pathways into tech jobs, SD60 is helping to prepare its young people to be engaged, responsible citizens in both the offline and online worlds.
What’s clear is that the next generation need to be well-equipped to deal with the impact of their increasingly digital lives. Luckily, the principles of good digital citizenship are rooted in those of offline citizenship too, with positive communication and personal safety at its heart. What’s more, educators don’t have to wait for interventions from global or even national institutions and authorities to kick-start that learning. While these international initiatives can be hugely beneficial at scale, there’s no reason why educators can’t start with the community of young learners that’s already on their doorstep.