There are over 4 billion internet users worldwide, and chances are, your kids or students are some of them. In some ways, the internet has made the world a better place. It's easier than ever to access facts about science, history, and cultures other than our own.
However, not everyone uses the internet safely and ethically. While adults are guilty of things like cyber harassment and the spreading of misinformation, kids and teens are more likely to have difficulty with making good choices. In fact, recent studies have revealed that brain development isn't complete until around the age of 25.
Sure, the kids and teens of today have grown up in the digital age. They don't remember a time before the internet, because it was born before they were! However, that doesn't mean that we should expect them to be good digital citizens without a little guidance from adults.
We're going to talk about what digital citizenship entails and how to encourage kids and teens to be good digital citizens. Read on for some useful definitions and tips!
What is Digital Citizenship?
For years now, we've discussed how to recognise different types of cyberbullying and the impacts negative online behaviour can have on kids and teens. Now, educators are expanding their understanding of ethical internet usage.
Digital citizenship is a term that describes a more thoughtful and positive way of using the internet. Ultimately, a good digital citizen recognises that their actions online have real-life consequences. They try not only to make sure that their online behaviour is productive but also practice empathy online.
Being a good digital citizen doesn't just benefit other internet users, but yourself, as well. It also requires that you recognise and avoid unsafe internet practices. This can include avoiding links that may carry viruses and protecting personal information from online identity theft.
As we discuss some of these issues, you may think that they're too adult for kids and won't be a concern until they're older. However, the ways that we use the internet are constantly expanding. The earlier we teach kids and teens to navigate the internet properly, the less likely they'll be to make mistakes in the future.
Why Should We Teach Digital Citizenship Early?
We may like to think that our kids and teens are only going on websites that we've discussed with them and approved for their use.
Many parents go beyond these conversations and use other methods to monitor their kids' and teens' internet usage. A recent study found that 61% of parents have checked their kids' internet history. 39% have used parental controls to block certain websites or otherwise limit the way their kids can use the internet.
The problem with these kinds of monitoring or preventative methods is that your kids can find ways around them. Plus, it can establish a distrust in your household (or school), rather than giving kids the tools to responsibly navigate the internet on their own.
Of course, we're concerned about the content that kids interact with online. This is especially true of sexualised content or content that encourages destructive behaviour. The problem is, if we only ever tell them, "No, don't look at that," they're not going to understand why.
Teaching kids and teens good digital citizenship practices will help them understand the impact they can have on others. It will also show them that they are leaving behind a digital footprint which can help or hinder their educational or work opportunities. Everyone needs to understand that the internet, and how we use it, is a two-way street.
Engaging kids and teens on the subject of digital citizenship will also give them a space to ask questions about why certain content is inappropriate. It is important that we give them the tools to understand how content can affect the way we perceive the world around us.
Oftentimes, negative content appears harmless. Kids may not recognise it as harmful or discriminatory.
How Do We Teach Digital Citizenship?
Teaching digital citizenship requires that educators and parents focus on lessons on how to safely use the internet. It needs to be an ongoing and open conversation. Cover everything from protecting private information online to putting down the phone and making friends offline.
We'll go over some useful ways to create comprehensive digital citizenship lessons.
Show Them Their Own Digital Footprint
Parents can begin the digital citizenship conversation at home. Start by showing kids and teens their digital footprint. From a computer that is not logged into their personal accounts, have them search for themselves online.
You can begin with a general search on a search engine. Explain what kinds of content might come up that way.
This can include newspaper articles, lists of academic achievements. It can also include criminal records or written pieces that they have published online.
Next, navigate to any social media sites they use. Make sure you are logged out or using an account that isn't connected to theirs, and find their account. Show them what can be seen even by those people who aren't their friends or followers.
Kids who are new to social media might not understand the concept of "private" content. Teach them how to change their settings so strangers can't see what they've posted. Depending on their age, you may also want to make all of their photos private, too.
Ultimately, this practice is to show kids and teens that they can be traced. Encourage them to leave a positive digital footprint that highlights their achievements, kindness, and responsibility.
Discuss Internet Usage Laws
Whether at home or in school, kids and teens need to be taught that even in the wild west of the world wide web, there are laws.
Many websites have age restrictions but they're not hard to get past. Help your kids and teens understand that just because they can lie about their age online doesn't mean that they should. Give them real-life examples of times that kids have wound up in danger because they fabricated their age or identity online.
Copyright laws and fair use laws can be a little bit confusing, but teachers have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their use. Asking your students to create a powerpoint, website, or any other project that involves the use of digital images? Refresh their memories on how to use images without stealing them or using them unfairly.
Teach Cyber Literacy: Know Your Sources
Simply put, having cyber literacy means that you know how to interpret information online. This includes understanding source material and evaluating its usefulness. In other words, one part of cyber literacy includes finding legitimate sources to back up our claims.
Teaching this kind of cyber literacy is something educators are already doing. When we ask students to write papers, we expect them to find fact-based sources. Expanding that conversation to include why this is important can improve the way we teach cyber literacy.
Show your students websites that claim to report facts but never provide any evidence. Have them point to the areas where evidence would be necessary to make the source credible. Ask them why spreading false or unproven information could be harmful and help them work through the answer.
Teach Cyber Literacy: Recognize Propaganda
Another important component of cyber literacy is recognising propaganda. This helps us protect ourselves from forming harmful views at the hands of other internet users. Not all discriminatory or negative ideas are blatant and kids on the internet are particularly susceptible to these subtle messages.
Social studies classes are ideal for teaching lessons on this kind of cyber literacy. Social studies teachers are already discussing social movements and the ways that popular beliefs were and are formed. It's important that they recognise how much of a roll the internet plays in our beliefs today and move the conversation into the present when possible.
With guidance and supervision, ask students to analyse different types of content. Ask questions like, "What message does this content convey? Who is the intended audience, and who is being targeted?"
We may not realise it, but kids and teens are subjected to propaganda all the time and it's often disguised as meaningless humour. Memes, especially, can contain negative messages disguised as jokes.
Most memes are harmless, but some of them do encourage a dark and even nihilistic sense of humour. Teach kids how to recognise content that is made at the expense of others and encourage them to think more empathetically. Kids may not understand that saying, "It's only a joke," doesn't eliminate the harmful repercussions that content can have.
Use real-life examples both current and historical. Telling kids, "This isn't nice and could lead to negative things," may not get through to them. Showing them how it has in the past could be more effective.
Give Kids Tools to Handle Negativity on the Internet
As we've said before, it's not enough to tell your kids and teens where they can go on the internet and where they can't. We can't monitor their online activity constantly, especially when they can access the internet from their friends' phones and computers. Teach kids and teens how to react when they do encounter negative content on the internet.
Younger kids should show negative content to their parents or teachers. They are not equipped to gauge if the content could be harmful and needs to be reported, so they should rely on adults to take the next step.
Older kids and teens should also show negative content to adults, but you can also talk to them about being proactive in their own friend groups. If they notice their friends bullying or spreading rumours online, they should not participate. Talk to them about active participation and complicit behaviours such as liking or reposting negative content.
A big part of being a good digital citizen is spreading awareness and teaching others how to be good digital citizens, too. Talk to teens about how they can productively engage with their friends about negative behaviour online. Help them understand boundaries and how to recognise when something has gone too far for them to handle on their own.
Include Lessons on Digital Privacy in Computer Classes
Nowadays, tons of websites ask you to make accounts in order to access them. Kids and teens have often made accounts for gaming or social media sites, and may not think anything of it. Teach them how to recognise when websites are asking for too much information.
Begin with a quiz on internet privacy. Ask questions like, "Should you post your phone number online? Should you make accounts on sites that require a credit card number?"
Go over the answers with your class and talk about what kind of information different websites may need. Explain to them what can happen if they put too much of their personal information online, from unsolicited phone calls to banking hacks.
Of course, many kids may not have access to information like credit card numbers or even their own social security number, but it's still important that they know how to keep this information safe.
Finally, talk to them about safe password creation. Encourage them to keep track of their passwords somewhere safe, like a notebook they keep in their desk at home. Get them in the habit of logging out of accounts when using shared computers.
Bring in a Speaker
Learning important life lessons from trusted family members and teachers is important. However, bringing in an expert can help send that message home.
Check some of these testimonials from the groups I've spoken to in the past.If you'd like to inquire about a presentation at your school or request more resources, contact us today!
Other helpful resources on this topic
For more teaching resources around Digital Citizenship click here for commonsense media's website.
E-safety also has some great content and videos on this topic.
As always; please let me know if this was helpful, how I could improve and, if you have any questions.
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- Jonny Shannon