W. Fryer, CC BY 2.0Credit: W. Fryer, CC BY 2.0

Headshot photo_Anne CollierGuest contributor Anne Collier discusses youth and digital citizenship, and shares ten key insights for parents. Anne is president of Net Family News Inc., a nonprofit organization she founded in 1999, and founder of iCanHelpline.org, a social media helpline for U.S. schools, which she is piloting in the state of California this school year. Anne blogs at NetFamilyNews.org.

Actually, parents are digital citizens, too, if they spend any time in digital spaces. At least for as long as we residents of this networked world are still putting “digital” in front of “citizenship.” I suspect that won’t be for very long, but we’re here, now, in an interesting, global discourse about what citizenship means now in an increasingly networked world – especially for youth, the people who will be running it – so let’s run with it.

One corner of that discussion is here in Buenos Aires this week. I’m speaking at the First Regional Conference on Digital Literacy & Citizenship of REDNATIC, a growing network of online-youth-serving nonprofit organizations from all over Latin America and a great model for other regions of the planet. The conference is being hosted by Chicos.net, Argentina’s leading nonprofit organization in youth digital literacy.

In an email interview, Buenos Aires’s big daily newspaper Clarin asked me for 10 tips for parents of digital citizens. So, since they’re in Spanish there, I thought I’d share the English-language original with you here:

  • Remember that digital citizenship can’t just be digital. Our digital social experiences and activities are embedded in and reflect our offline social lives. So be clear that what you’ve always taught your children about being a good human being applies to the digital part of their lives too.
  • Know that digital citizenship isn’t just a kid thing. We can’t expect our kids to be good digital citizens if we aren’t modeling good citizenship ourselves (its elements include civility, social literacy, community engagement, accountability, respecting others’ rights and perspectives). “Do what I do” is so much more powerful than “do what I say” in any aspect of parenting.
  • Get social media-literate yourself. Find out who in your extended family and social and professional circles are in social media and what apps and services they use. Start playing with social media with these peers (I use the word “play” because that’s how kids approach these social tools: playfully). You might find you enjoy it and begin to understand not just the media but also why your children enjoy it.
  • Make digital citizenship development a collaboration. Ask your children what their favorite apps and services are and join them yourself. Ask them to teach you how they work. Lots of kids love to teach adults about digital media – they love the mutual respect and fun that can develop. You have life literacy, they have tech literacy, and both are needed in this world now. By definition, citizenship has to be citizen-sourced (by all citizens, kids too) not dictated!
  • “Friend” your kids where appropriate. You can “friend” them but don’t comment publicly on their pages or in front of their friends. That can embarrass them and send them “underground” (some kids have public accounts for interaction with parents and relatives and private accounts for interaction with friends). The reason for this is familiarity not surveillance. We fear what we don’t understand, and fear causes overreaction. Kids want to get as far away as possible from fear and overreaction on parents’ part, which helps neither you nor them. Friending them is more about having their backs not surveillance. You can check in every now and then or just use the app with them for fun. Parents and kids joke around – why not digitally?
  • Know that you need context. Before taking action when you see something negative online, be clear that we rarely have context for young people’s online comments and behaviors. We can’t have that context because we’re not part of that peer group or situation. So what looks mean or cruel could’ve been an inside joke that hurt no one in the group. Or it could’ve been a mistake – a stupid prank gone wrong. Or it could’ve been something said in a moment of anger but with no intention of long-term hurt. We don’t know until we find out from the people in the context. Sometimes we can’t find out, but before we discipline someone, it’s best to try to, rather than make things worse.
  • Know that kids need social literacy more than ever. It’s key to safety, citizenship and social success – essential bullying prevention online and offline. Digital literacy isn’t enough in social media. The skills that reduce bullying and all anti-social behavior and increase well-being and social success are self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, co-creating good relationships and good decision making (more on this at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, CASEL.org).
  • Know that banning social media can cause social problems. Some parents think that if they just keep their kids out of all social media, the kids will be safe (see this about actor and parent Kate Winslett from Maureen Kochan at ConnectSafely.org). That’s not the case if most of their social circle and peers are in social media. If you ban social media, you’re in effect increasing the chances of your child being socially excluded. It’s better to parent with social media and let them practice their developing social skills in the spaces where their friends are, some of which are digital now, right? “Citizenship” is a verb. We learn it through practice.
  • Don’t believe the worst. There’s no benefit to our children in believing that all the negativity and worst-case scenarios we see in the news is their experience with social media. Most kids are good kids, so most kids’ experiences in social media are mostly positive – not all, but mostly, just as in everyday life. The rest, the negative stuff, you can deal with together, just as you do with problems that come up offline. Your children will appreciate and benefit from your loving open-mindedness.
  • Don’t try to play God – as in the video game genre called “god games” in which the player sees all and controls all. Surveillance and control teach our children that surveillance and control are the solutions to social problems and the way people stay safe. They aren’t. In this increasingly user-driven, networked media environment and world, it’s the internal safeguards that are most powerful. The first 20 years of Internet safety focused almost exclusively on the external safety tools, such as blocking and monitoring software, “parental controls,” rules and laws. They have their place, but the indispensable “tools” that will safeguard and otherwise serve our kids all their lives, online and offline, are resilience, empathy, ethics and the literacies of this digital age. If we try to remove all risk from their lives, we’re not helping them develop resilience or practice their citizenship skills.



This text was originally published on NetFamilyNews.org and has been re-posted with permission.