The Case for a National Digital Citizenship Coalition

Photo: Canva

The central task of citizenship is learning how to be good to one another.”— A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz

One of the funnier segments on late night television is “Mean Tweets” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” where celebrities read the nastiest tweets strangers post about them. Part of its brilliance lies in the underlying message, “This is not OK, and we’re going to call it out on a national stage.”

There is something reassuring about seeing people stand up to the trolls among us, but it only scratches the surface of a larger issue, which is empowering children to make informed choices online. There hasn’t yet been a national push for digital citizenship, the term used to describe the ability to interface responsibly with the digital world.

Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000, which requires participating schools to install blocking software to prevent children’s access to inappropriate content, as well as educate children about appropriate online behavior.

Organizations including Common Sense Media and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America have stepped up to the plate to develop programs and curricula to address digital citizenship. But more of these programs might benefit from peer-to-peer strategies, which can be an effective tool to motivate youth audiences.

We have a responsibility to do much more. Ironically, we now can, thanks to a windfall from an unlikely source: the social media platforms themselves.

But first, let’s talk about how we got here and why it matters.

Not your teenage wasteland

The iPhone was first released in 2007. Think about how much has changed since then.

The blog post “Middle School Misfortunes, Then and Now,” by teacher Benjamin Conlon, provides a sobering look at how different life looks for a teenager now versus twenty years ago. The premise is simple, yet effective: try to remember your most embarrassing moment as a teen. Now, imagine if someone videotaped it and shared it relentlessly on social media.

The Pew Research Center conducted a research study in 2011 called, “Teens, Kindness, and Cruelty on Social Network Sites,” and the results were eye-opening.

The majority of teens surveyed said they had witnessed other people be mean or cruel on social networking sites. More chilling was the fact that twenty-one percent of teens who had witnessed online cruelty admitted they had also joined in the harassment.

And while those episodes originated in the digital realm, that didn’t prevent them from spilling over into real life. Forty-one percent of teens reported having specific negative real-life outcomes from experiences on a social networking site. Of those:

· Twenty-five percent said it resulted in a face-to-face confrontation or argument.

· Twenty-two percent had an experience that ended a friendship.

· Thirteen percent felt nervous about going to school the next day.

· Eight percent got into a physical fight because of something that happened on social media.

Most of the incidents went undetected by adults; more than half of teens surveyed said they had set up private social networks profiles visible only to their friends.

Make way for the influencers

The good news is that many of the teens who said they witnessed cruelty online tried to talk with someone about it. In the Pew study, more than half of the teens who had witnessed online cruelty sought advice from a friend, while only thirty-six percent sought advice from parents. This is a potential indicator of the value of peer-to-peer strategies when designing an initiative to reach teens.

Enlisting the right messengers is crucial to the success of any public information campaign. In a 2017 article that appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, researchers Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand said, “In order to inspire and persuade people to adopt a new behavior or a new way of thinking, having the message come from people who have authority and credibility in your audience’s world matters.”

Yet, many programs that address digital citizenship rely solely on teachers and parents to be the messengers. And in a survey conducted in 2012 by Cable in the Classroom, those messengers indicated that they felt unprepared.

Of almost 1,000 parents and more than 2,000 teachers surveyed, eight out of ten parents said they would like more guidance on teaching their children about digital citizenship, and less than forty percent of educators felt well prepared to teach it.

Peer-to-peer and “train the trainer” strategies, which have been used for years in public health awareness campaigns, can be highly effective if they’re rooted in research.

That was the case when University of Michigan and Ann Arbor Public Schools began partnering on a peer-to-peer depression awareness initiative called “P2P.” Students help design and lead school campaigns, which aim to increase awareness of depression, reduce the stigma of mental illness, and encourage help-seeking behaviors.

The program conducted extensive pre- and post-launch resesarch, and proved so successful that it will be offered to additional schools. In a paper in the journal Psychiatric Services, the University of Michigan team responsible for the program said that “[t]apping into youth voices is a huge part of the success of the P2P program.”

A unique moment to establish a digital citizenship coalition

The time is right to begin a coordinated, nationwide effort to address digital citizenship.

Because of the collective lessons learned from recent scandals involving social media platforms, we have a unique opportunity to start one.

Facebook, for example, currently faces a Federal Trade Commission fine upwards of five billion dollars for privacy violations. Typically, these fines are returned to a general government agency fund, but they could be put to better use in this case.

A more fitting use of the money would be to use it to establish a digital citizenship coalition.

Organizations that are already doing some of the best work in this area, and have already made connections in schools, could have greater impact through combined efforts.

More funding would enable these groups to share lessons learned and reach even more kids, their parents, and teachers through proven strategies such as “train the trainer,” peer-to-peer networks, and community and faith-based initiatives.

We should take advantage of this opportunity to help teach the next generation how to interact responsibly with the digital world. If not, we should get ready for a lot more mean tweets.

Holly A. Bodner is the founder of TwoReasons Media, and is a Mom to two digitally-savvy teens in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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