Civic engagement goes viral when young voices turn to social media

This is a guest post by Joseph South, Chief Learning Officer for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)

Credit: Alex Radelich

When you think of youth civic engagement today, what comes to mind?

Many undoubtedly recall the National School Walkout and March for Our Lives rallies that drew millions of youth to Washington, D.C., and other cities across the U.S. recently. Stoked by the impassioned pleas from the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, millions of young people from urban centers to rural towns marched to city centers and state capitols to demand gun reform. They also tweeted, blogged, posted photos on Instagram, and shared videos on YouTube.

Others will point to the youth of the Black Lives Matter movement, who have taken to the streets — and social media channels — over the past several years to decry police killings that have disproportionately affected young African-Americans.

Those who define civic engagement more broadly might focus on teens like Laney Blair, a 17-year-old filmmaker who co-created #IamMyBeautiful, a body positivity campaign focused on making young women feel good in their bodies.

Or Mia and Owen, two wheelchair-bound elementary students from Yellow Springs, Ohio, who spearheaded a project to make their village more accessible. After they were stymied by a school crosswalk that abutted a curb, they set out to map the accessibility of their entire village. They presented their data to the village council, which authorized fixes to curbs all over town.

What all of these civically engaged youth have in common is that they have something to say and are harnessing the power of digital tools to amplify their voices. In doing so, they are exercising their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens — and defining what citizenship means in the age of the internet.

When it comes to being heard, youth have historically been at a disadvantage. Considered too young and immature to be taken seriously, their activism has often been relegated to poster competitions and fundraising efforts. In the instances when they’ve secured a seat at table — on student councils or youth commissions, for example — adults might politely listen to them, but generally haven’t given their opinions much weight.

Until now.

Despite its often negative reputation, social media has been a game changer for today’s youth. It’s enabled them to bypass adult structures and speak to the masses. Consider the responses to the Parkland students who created the #NeverAgain movement. Within a week of the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 of their classmates, the students had appeared on nearly every major news program and talk show in the U.S., garnered more than $3 million in donations to their cause (including a couple of big checks from A-list celebrities), drew admiration from around the world, and struck fear into the hearts of powerful opponents of their cause.

Credit: Sharon McCutcheon

They did it by opening Twitter accounts. Emma Gonzales, one of the most recognizable faces of the movement, has 1.6 million followers today — about a million more than the NRA.

The Parkland kids are not alone. Today’s youth are using digital tools to pursue passion projects, interact with peers and experts, share opinions and knowledge, and promote causes dear to their hearts.

These digital tools have spawned a new kind of citizenship. First coined by Mike Ribble, Gerald Bailey and Tweed Ross in a 2004 article — the term digital citizenship started out as a response to misuses of and threats from technology, such as cyberbullying, predators, plagiarism, and illegal music downloads.

In his 2007 seminal book, Digital Citizenship in Schools, Ribble introduced nine elements of a comprehensive digital citizenship education as a guide to help educators address behaviors and promote safety. In the years that followed, digital citizenship became a well-known term associated with the perils of the digital world.

But that definition has rapidly evolved, says Carolyn Sykora, a senior director at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). A hallmark of the organization is the ISTE Standards, a framework for rethinking education and empowering learners. The definitive standards for technology use in schools, they were created based on feedback from thousands of educators in dozens of countries and serve as a roadmap for how to re-engineer schools and classrooms for meaningful, effective tech integration.

Within the suite of ISTE Standards are subsets of standards for students, educators, administrators, tech coaches and computer science educators. Running throughout each is the concept of digital citizenship.

During a refresh of the ISTE Standards for Students in 2016, a new definition of digital citizenship emerged. Feedback from educators — from kindergarten teachers to professors who train teachers — revealed a shift in perspective that “spoke to students’ use of technology to make the world a better place,” Sykora says. “Participants recognized students were doing many good deeds using digital tools like crowdfunding to raise money or using social media to mobilize action for causes they cared about.”

ISTE now defines a digital citizen as someone who recognizes the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world and acts and models in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.

The key word in the new definition is opportunities.

Sarah Stoeckl, an ISTE project manager who worked on refreshing the ISTE Standards for Students, says the statement “highlights not only the responsibilities of interactions online but also the rights that students have as global and national citizens, the opportunities that the internet facilitates, and students’ ability to model safe, legal and ethical behaviors for others.

Credit: Imgix

“From the get-go, the focus is on complexity and proactive behavior, rather than fears and regulations,” she says.

So what does that look like in classrooms and schools? At Stamford American International School in Singapore, where Craig Kemp is head of educational technology, it involves students as young as middle schoolers planning and leading a class for parents on social media. The teens, as experts, dispel myths about social media and answer parents’ questions about everything from why kids use Snapchat to what cell phone rules they recommend.

Other ISTE educators, like Marlana Benzie Lourey, embed social media into their lessons. “I will offer REAL opportunities for students to participate in social media in class, modeling for them how to be good digital citizens,” she recently posted on Twitter in response to ISTE’s #digcitcommit campaign, designed to motivate educators to embrace digital citizenship.

Today, policymakers are taking notice of how young people are engaging with social media. The Obama Foundation recently issued a call to re-examine the concept of digital citizenship. The announcement came on the heels of a Washington state law requiring a statewide study of how schools are integrating digital citizenship education in their curriculum. It’s among the first of its kind in the country, and many other states are now considering similar legislation.

The heightened awareness is reshaping our concept of digital citizenship. Rather than just warning young people about online risks or trying to curtail their activities, leaders are realizing the importance of helping students leverage the power of digital media to become engaged citizens.

As leaders shift their mindset from primarily preventing students from engaging in negative online behavior to supporting them in using powerful digital tools to make the change they want to see, we will experience more instances of the positive impact of student voices on the world around us. And we will be preparing an entire generation to become engaged in their communities in ways that not only prepare them to become tomorrow’s leaders, but allow them to be today’s leaders, too.


Joseph South is chief learning officer for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). He formerly served as the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. ISTE is home to a passionate community of global educators who believe in the power of technology to transform teaching and learning, accelerate innovation and solve tough problems in education.