We are curious creatures. Who knew that, when the first homo sapiens lifted her head at that first spark of consciousness, we would end up where we are today. Right now, I’m talking to someone who’s one hundred miles away, and another who is four hundred miles away. It’s a brave new world — but like all the other worlds of before, there is still people in it.
What is Digital Citizenship?
Digital citizenship is, at its most basic, our lives as a part of online communities. Mike Ribble defines it as:
the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use.
Just like we learn how to be a part of our offline societies — how to be polite, how to navigate people with opposing goals and ideals, how to, in essence, be decent human beings with compassion, courtesy, and patience — we also must learn how to behave online.
The online world is different; there’s a vast degree of anonymity. This can be a blessing — it can allow people who might otherwise be afraid to speak up to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. I get it; I’m a shy person. But that anonymity and the misunderstanding that there are no consequences online also has a negative side: it attracts bullies and mean-spirited folks; those who forget (or don’t care) that there’s an actual human being on the other side of the screen.
Our Online Identities
Even with technology saturating our lives, we’re still people. Self-conscious, selfish, kinda crummy, anxious and over-thinking human beings.
Sam Grobart’s article “Should I Be a Jerk or a Human Being on Facebook?” recounts a familiar story that, I think, could’ve been penned by almost any of us. It certainly sounded familiar to me.
People like to have roles. We like to know where we fit; we have expectations of others, and we know that others have expectations of us. In part, it’s a survival mechanism: if someone acts “out of character,” then perhaps something is wrong, and it could negatively affect us or them. Our roles provide security and familiarity, and there are some benefits to them (note that, however, adhering to roles and expectations can be negative for erasing nuance and expression).
The main part about crafting an online identity — as with any identity — is being self-aware. There are real consequences to what gets posted. You could hurt someone, lose a job (or be passed over for hiring), or damage your reputation. There’s also the tendency to make ourselves look better than we are; it’s easier to control what people see of us in the digital sphere. Gets tricky when you’re trying to make a dating profile, lemme tell you. Aside from our perceptions of ourselves and of each other, it’s also important to remember that everything online is forever.
Juan Enriquez gave a TED Talk in 2013 about that fact that we don’t always remember, and often would like to forget. That face is: nothing gets deleted, not really. The data is still out there, and those who know how to find it, can. If you’re just an average person on the street, the chances of that happening to you are rather slim, but the point still stands: think about what you post. We are the sum of what we leave behind, and one day we won’t be here to defend ourselves against those parts of us that are still floating around after we’re gone.
Cyberbullying, and Privacy
One thing I saw discussed, briefly, in relation to navigating life in the digital world, was an idea that I think means well in the end, but that also does more harm than good. And that’s in relation to privacy. Paula Green’s article, “7 Ways to Prevent Cyberbullying” discusses a topic that’s important for us to address — cyberbullying, as Green states, affects around half of children — but wades into dangerous waters:
3. Monitor online activity
Luckily, cyberbullying has one advantage: you can notice it and save the evidence. If taking their phone away is not an option, you can install iPhone monitoring app Pumpic. It allows monitoring social media activity, including Facebook and Instagram, view all text messages (even deleted ones), call logs and general online behavior. You can block and control the child’s phone remotely through PC or personal cell phone.
Green means well, of course. But this “solution” actively removes the child’s agency — rather than working with the child to preserve evidence, this method suggests working around the kid, and indisputably invades their privacy (the software can’t discern between the cyberbully and your kids’ friends; you get everything). The inevitable result is not a kid grateful for you for “swooping in and rescuing them” — the result is that you’ve breached your child’s privacy and broken their trust.
I’m one of the countless LGBTQ+ kids who founds themselves online, in a community with answers and shared experiences and a support system, because I could not access that offline. My experiences of the offline world being unsafe color my reactions to suggestions of invasive monitoring of people, especially adolescents. I remember the warnings the went out when Windows 10 debuted last year, because the options to monitor activity was built into that OS, and for some kids in homophobic and transphobic households, maintaining privacy is a literal matter of life and death. And even for non-LGBTQ+ kids, what starts out as a “we’re just protecting you” often is just one step away from starting down a dark path. And, in my opinion, anything that requires you to jailbreak your kid’s device is bad news, period. In fact, that whole list of features makes me physically nauseous.
Yes, the Internet is scary. Social media connects us in ways we’ve never been connected before, and that’s scary. But I will forever advocate for sitting down and having an open dialogue with children, with teens, with young adults. I don’t have kids, and I won’t ever have kids, but I get wanting to protect your children. I get it. But there’s a difference between telling your 13-year old, “if you want to use Facebook, you’re going to have to friend me; same goes for Instagram and Twitter” and installing what is essentially spyware.
For those who want a more balanced and reasonable method for helping young people navigate the online world, Green’s healthier advice includes: getting involved in your communities and talking with your children and students. Katherine Sokolowski also offers invaluable advice: be role models for the youth in your life, and be role models for each other.
Humans are complicated and messy enough as it is, long before the advent of the Internet, and the complexities of the digital sphere raise more questions, concerns, and musings than we know how to answer — since when have we been able to answer the multitudes of other questions about our existences and our interactions?
However, that doesn’t mean that these questions aren’t worth asking. They are. The most important takeaway from my research of digital citizenship, and what it means to be a good citizen, is that we need to keep up discussions. That we need to think about what we’re saying, about what we’re sharing, and that we need to remember that the Internet, which seems so vast and sometimes distanced from reality, is reality, and that it is populated by real people.
So, how do we be good digital citizens?
For starters: by being good, thoughtful people.