The ethics of digital citizenship: Preventing and Addressing cyber-bullying, and teaching digital responsibility

Great deal of being a citizen also involves being ethical. If we want to harness all the possibilities and freedom the digital world has to offer, it is compulsory that we learn how to be good digital citizens. There seems to be a general understanding among many schools and parents that because children enjoy huge dexterity over digital tools, they also have knowledge on how to use these tools wisely and ethically. Unfortunately, this is far from being true. Numerous polls around the globe show that phenomena involving an abusive use of digital tools is in a constant and steady rise. Many problems exist within this field: web intrusion, identity theft, breach of personal information, public humiliation, among others. This chapter focuses on two of these dilemmas that seem to be of particular importance for educators: cyberbullying and copyright infringement.

Cyber-harassment, better known as cyberbullying, is not new. It is a phenomenon that has increased in graveness and frequency in strong correlation with the rapid improvement and expansion of digital tools. This growth has multiple causes and explanations, but one of the most significant is the inability from authorities (from expert educators to teachers to parents) to determine with certainty what can be considered as cyberbullying. In their report from 2014 the Cyberbullying Research Center defined cyberbullying as a “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices.”[1] A seemingly broad but efficient definition that includes everything from psychological harassment, invasion of privacy, sharing of personal or private information, rude or unacceptable behavior online, among other actions commonly cited when addressing cyberbullying.

When reflecting upon this phenomenon and its effects, it is essential to also consider that youth has allocated the digital world much significance within their lives[2]. Terms such as digital identity and digital footprint have already begun to take off in the lingo of teachers and parents. Similar to their offline counterparts, digital personalities and footprints are constructed by each individual by a set of behaviors, ideas, interests and interactions with other people. Whereas there is still much discussion about the authenticity of these new social constructs, it is clear that children and teenagers do not have these same doubts. This failure to understand the overall meaning of their digital presence is the reason behind why many people also fail to comprehend the short and long-term consequences that cyberbullying can provoke. For them, harassing someone online is arguably as important as doing it offline.

The effects of cyberbullying can be devastating, especially when not handled properly by teachers or parents. In 2013, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the US, released the results of a longitudinal research studying the long-term effects of bullying in the life of the participating actors (bullies and victims). The study followed more than 1400 children over a period of thirteen years. The results showed that the group identified as victims had elevated probabilities of suffering from a series of mental health issues, most commonly panic and depressive disorders, and ten times more probability of having suicidal thoughts or engaging in suicidal behavior[3]. The study contributes to the theory that the effects of bullying do not end with the closure of the adolescent years, and they can be found deep into young adulthood.

As with any other problem, accepting that cyberbullying exists is the first step in finding solutions. But, what can be done? From the educator perspective, there are two main paths that can be adopted to fight this issue. Intervention and prevention. Both are equally important, and both are crucial to diminish the effects and frequency of cyber-harassment.

On the one hand, intervention englobes all the know-hows (tactics, lingo, privacy) and know-who(communication) of dealing with a particular case once it has already occurred and discovered. There is a big challenge in this area, because children and teenagers seem to adopt digital tools with more ease compared to their teachers and parents. This places teachers in a dark room when trying to fully understand an occurrence, and it leaves many schools without appropriate protocols of intervention when cyberbullying is detected. These are two main aspects any schools should address: train their teachers to be savvy using technology and digital tools wisely, and designing a specific plan or protocol that should be followed each time a case of cyberbullying has been detected or is suspected. Knowledge in how digital tools work and can cause harm, and anticipating a strategized process for an occurrence are the best weapons schools and teachers can adopt when dealing with cyberbullying.

On the other hand, we have prevention. This a more global and ambitious solution, but also more demanding and tardier to implement. Educating children to not engage or respond to cyberbullying. It is, at the same time, coating a child to not be affected if he or she is attacked online, but also trying to prevent the attack to happen in the first place. As teachers and schools incorporate knowledge of the digital into their everyday decisions, this step is going to become an imperative action. Teaching digital responsibility is becoming every day more popular and many schools are beginning to slowly incorporate lessons and courses focusing on this demand. This might be the main task for teachers in regard to the digital world. Yes, incorporating technology to the classroom is important, but not essential. What is essential is educating children and teenagers on how to use digital technology ethically. How to use this digital tools to harness their potential, and why they should not use it to cause harm to others. This becomes increasingly important, because many modern digital tools allow conditions that can make cyberbullying or cyberattacking extremely easy: there is the anonymity factor that can lead to actions without apparent real consequences; and also the non-facial confrontation, where the aggressor does not have to be in the same place as the victim, thus diminishing the probability of any retraction due to burden of consciousness.

Of course, teaching digital responsibility englobes much more than just preventing cyberbullying. Digital responsibility involves knowing how to behave ethically online. This includes harassment, but it also includes seemingly petty things such as social media etiquettes: not spamming other peoples’ mail or social networks; not begging for engagement (asking for likes or shares); not to abuse tagging or hash-tagging for marketing or unrelated personal purposes; to use correct punctuation and grammar when possible; or not being an “internet troll” (leaving hurtful or controversial comments for the sole purpose of personal entertainment). It is advisable to train educators on the many mishaps of digital behavior, but it is impossible for a teacher to learn it all. Our relationship with digital media is still changing and teachers should focus on nurturing a digital culture of respect, responsibility and collaboration. Schools need to teach that human values also apply to digital identity and behavior, and that the digital world is not another world, but one within this world. There are ethical codes and principles that need to be respected in order to allow peaceful online interaction.

[1] Hinduja, S. Patchin J. Cyberbullying: Identification, Prevention and Response.

[2] Buckingham, D. Youth, Identity and Digital Media.

[3] Copeland WE et al. Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peer in Childhood and Adolescence.

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