There are a smattering of resources for teaching children how to safely and healthily use the Internet and mobile devices. This is not one of them. This post is for adults.
We’re the ones that children are learning how to interact with using technology. We’re the ones indigenous to the Internet when they create their accounts and get their phone numbers. We’re the ones setting the rules, the culture, and the parameters. Essentially, we’re the reason that digital citizenship lessons are necessary because we’re creating the digital world and digital society.
It’s therefore our responsibility to make it great place to be, and that’s what my post is going to address. But first, a confession.
I hate the term “digital citizenship.”
I’m a millennial. In elementary school, we learned how to interact with others online through this thing called “email”. In middle school, my family got a computer and a modem (and ear plugs), and I got an AOL Instant Messenger screen name (or several, eventually). In high school, I had a LiveJournal diary and a MySpace page, and my family got cell phones. My freshman year of college, Facebook happened.
I cannot fathom a world without online connection and instant communication. I literally can’t even.
This is why the term “digital citizenship” confuses me. Being a good driver isn’t “roadway citizenship”; being a good employee isn’t “workplace citizenship”; being a good grocery store patron isn’t “supermarket citizenship”. Being online is so normal to me, so natural, that it’s just an extension of who I am. When I’m online, I’m still me. Just online. It’s just another place that I go. When I text, that’s still my voice.
But not everyone thinks this way, and even at times, I have misrepresented who I am and what my principles are. The Internet can be an alternate universe, and if you want to create a completely different identity, that’s within the realm of possibility. “Digital citizenship” and even “netiquette” as terms separate reality (citizenship, etiquette) from the technology when what we really need is more humanity, not less.
When we remember that we are people interacting with other people, our behavior becomes more, well, humane, so here are some helpful things to remember when connecting with others using technology:
The majority of communication is nonverbal, meaning that unless you’re video-chatting, most of the way you say what you mean is stripped from your written message. The result? Misinterpretation. It’s just how human brains function; it’s rarely intentional malice (unless you’re reading YouTube comments).
The opposite is also true: when you read something, you might be misinterpreting someone else’s thoughts. The shorter the message, the less context you have. And I’m not even going to describe what autocorrect and autocomplete can do to a rational thought.
Absolute privacy is imaginary.
Last December, Audrey Shores and I did a presentation on Educators and Social Media. In it, we show screenshots of actual tweets and posts that got somebody fired or disciplined. None of those posts still exist, and many of the accounts have been deleted, but the words and ideas will live forever (or however long digital images will exist). Some of them were posts that the person thought were private, or they thought only their friends could see them, or they claimed that the account was satirical.
The truth is that digital communication was created to spread information quickly, even information, files, and images that you don’t want shared. Sometimes we mistakenly publicize something meant for one person; sometimes we reply to all (Thanks, group texts!). Sometimes we text the wrong number. Sometimes we share something with a trusted person or group, then relationships sour, and your thoughts or images are shared without your permission. Sometimes hackers.
Anonymity isn’t for everyone.
There are different reasons for being anonymous online. With our students, we tell them that it’s safer to be anonymous. Also, you can say and do things without repercussion when you’re anonymous, like whistle-blowing. On the flip side, you can say and do things without repercussion when you’re anonymous, like cyberbullying (another term I hate. It’s just bullying.). There must be a balance between freedom and accountability. Before seeking anonymity online, please analyze why it’s so imperative for no one to know who you are. Safety is understandable, but doing and saying terrible things is inexcusable.
Internet safety is for everyone.
In preparing for the webinar, I checked to see how my Facebook page looked from different users, and I was flabbergasted. Anyone I friended had my cell phone number. Perfect acquaintances. Former students. Random mutual friends. I have something like 600 Facebook friends that I’ve amassed over the span of a decade; there’s no way if all those people asked for my phone number I would give it to them, but there it was.
The same applies to using location services. Sometimes an app or site simply shows everyone your city, but sometimes the map gets detailed enough to show your exact location. If you’re using Facebook Messenger from your house, anyone who you message knows where you live. And that’s creepy.
We tell our students and children not to post about being home alone, but when we go on vacation, we tell all of Facebook that our house will be unattended for a specified amount of time.
We tell our students and children not to meet random strangers they meet online, but then we use Craigslist. (A good read: How to Buy and Sell Safely.)
We tell our students and children to report cyberbullying and inappropriate contact, but how often do adults report harassment to site administrators and cell phone providers?
Perhaps our students and children are having such a difficult time being responsible with technology because role models are lacking. Often this isn’t intentional. While it is undeniable and unfortunate that there are adults who take to the Internet to be malicious and inappropriate, there are far more adults who take to the Internet without thinking before posting. I’ll leave you with my favorite resources on citizenship, Flocabulary’s “Oversharing” and this THINK poster:
Samantha Bates is a former middle school teacher and current Director of Member Services for Professional Educators of Tennessee. She enjoys spending time with her family and dancing like a crazy person when no one is watching.