Are We Missing the Point of Digital Citizenship?

I keep seeing a meme floating around Facebook. It has a quote from Penn State and Duke and, I think maybe MSU, sharing times they passed on student athletes due to social media posts.

Let’s start with this: Maybe Penn State shouldn’t be quite so sanctimonious given their own ethical failings.

But beyond the institutional issues, I am concerned with the way we approach digital citizenship as this boogey-man, scare-fueled conversation. What would it mean if we allowed kids to make mistakes? What if we treated social media the way we treat in-person interactions? What if we treated social media indiscretions as a chance to grow? What if we approached them as learning opportunities?

What if we were quicker to listen and slower to judge?

What if we viewed it as an evolving story rather than a permanent digital tattoo? Do we risk making kids so risk-averse and image-conscious that they can’t be authentic? And are we doing enough to allow all students to express their identity, even in the face of bigotry?

What if we shifted away from PR and image control and toward authenticity and identity?

What if we shifted the conversation from “here’s what to avoid” to “what can you do to promote positive change?” What if we highlighted more of the stories of kids who are creating things and sharing them with the world?

What if we celebrated those times when students were courageously authentic about their identity even in the midst of bigotry and intolerance? What if, instead of saying, “your future employer will look at your Facebook,” we also had a conversation about corporations and privacy? What if we recognized that maybe a place like Penn State failed because they were focused on image control rather than ethics?

Perhaps when we run across a young person’s social media post that is vulgar or sexist or offensive, we should ask, “Who do you want to be?” and “How do you want to live?” rather than “Can you delete this so it doesn’t get seen?”

A Bigger Definition of Digital Citizenship

When we talk about “in person” citizenship, the conversation is almost always social, civic, and personal. It’s almost never economic. We talk about character and identity. We talk about democracy and social justice. We talk about things like citizen journalism and advocacy. We talk about power and privilege.

But suddenly when it switches to “digital” citizenship, the conversation shifts to risk-aversion and personal brand management. We stop talking about empowerment and switch to self-censorship. We treat it like an exercise in personal brand management. We ignore the fact that social media platforms are deeply social spaces with the same structures and systems we see in the “real world.”


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