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How to be an Upstanding “Digital Citizen”

In a society where anyone can become anybody or anything they’d like as soon as they log onto the internet, much of the activity of a typical social life has been superimposed online for teens to check into every day — sometimes several times a day.

Out in the ‘real’ world, interactions are different. People witness cruelty every day. Sometimes they intervene, and sometimes they don’t. There are laws, and social protocol, to follow. But who is policing the digital cyberspace? No one. And that leaves people free to be any kind of ‘digital citizen’ they want to be. Sadly, more often than not, people choose to be cruel.

In a new study, the PewResearch Internet Project set out to see how the estimated 95% of teenagers that utilize digital media respond to negative behaviors when they experience them online. They were curious about several aspects of digital citizenship, including:

Who is influencing their sense of what it means to be a good or bad “digital citizen”? How often do they intervene to stand up for others? How often do they join in the mean behavior?

In our survey, we follow teens’ experiences of online cruelty – either personally felt or observed – from incident to resolution. We asked them about how they reacted to the experience and how they saw others react. We asked them about whether they have received and where they sought advice – both general advice about online safety and responsibility and specific advice on how to handle a witnessed experience of online cruelty on a social network site.

The results were unsurprising (at least to me, a teenager who has been on the internet for as long as I can remember). An overwhelming 88% of teens say they have witnessed someone being treated cruelly on the internet, and 12% said they’ve seen it happen ‘very frequently.’ 15% of those surveyed personally said that they were the targets of such cruelty at one point or another in their online careers.

However, digital citizenship is not all about the negative parts of the internet. The idea behind it is a good one. The online world is there to be created and shaped, and you only get out of the internet what you put into it, so if everyone produced content effectively and used the internet correctly, the world would be an ideal and wonderful place, both online and off.

So what does it mean to be a ‘digital citizen?’ Just like any other person who is a part of a community, a digital citizen is part of and participates in blogging, social networking, and web journalism through the usage of online content and digital media. Put simply, if you spend a lot of time online, you’re a digital citizen — just as easily as living in New York makes you a New Yorker.

Some people would argue that digital citizenship begins the moment you sign up for an e-mail address, post a photo, or purchase something online. Participating in the digital community makes you a citizen of it, right? Citizenship is formally defined as ‘the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community.’ By that definition, perhaps participating passively in the online community can qualify as being a digital citizen — but I think it goes a bit further than that. I think you become a digital citizen as soon as you begin interacting with other members of your community.

So, if you are online, and you are interacting with the other citizens that make up the massive anonymous audience of the internet through social media, how do you use your powers for good and not evil? How do you make sure you’re being an upstanding digital citizen?

The nine elements of digital citizenship seem to be fairly standard rules to live by. They preach the same things our parents have been drilling into our heads since birth: make good choices. Don’t put things that will reflect badly on yourself where people can see them. Be kind. Think before you act. Be appropriate. Be responsible. They’re basic ideas, so why can’t people adhere to them? Apparently not everyone knows about etiquette and decorum. 1 out of every 3 teenagers has experienced some sort of cyberbullying, which makes you wonder — do people act like this out in the ‘real world,’ or is it the comfort of the anonymity of cyberspace that made them this way?

WikiHow took the liberty of elaborating on the nine elements, turning them into concrete things that everyone can do to make the internet a better place. Among them is number four: “teach, discuss, and model technology etiquette prior to using technology to avoid inappropriate behavior and ensure that everyone is a responsible digital citizen.” This is easier said than done, of course. Frequently, children have been gaining access to online material at younger and younger ages. Maybe it’s now necessary to teach children how to behave online just as we teach children to share and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

A lot of the ‘responsibilities’ of being a good digital citizen include educating others — not just on proper behavior, but on things like virus protection and what should go online and what should not. There are a lot of good reasons to teach digital citizenship: we want everyone to be better, to use the internet better so that we can get the most out of it. However, that can only happen if we work to promote online literacy and positive digital citizenship.

The school systems in our country are allowing for more technology than ever to be used inside the classroom. A ‘BYOD’ mentality (bring your own device) has been adapted by many administrators to allow for a cutting-edge classroom experience. While this is done with the best intentions at heart, it can sometimes do more harm than good to students who do not know proper online decorum. This is why teaching digital citizenship in classrooms is now more important than ever.

Students don’t realize all of the implications that poor digital behavior can have. It doesn’t only affect students who are being cyberbullied. Negative and inappropriate content can affect the future of the poster, and everyone knows that interacting with strangers is not always a good thing. By a 2012 study, even though most teens had their Facebook pages private, they still accepted friend requests from people they did not know. ‘Stranger danger’ seems like an age-old policy, just like sharing and being kind, but people have not yet realized that these behaviors need to extend onto the internet as well. People don’t realize that they are digital citizens, and that they live online as much as they live offline now, as well.

Digital media literacy education has become more and more popular in recent years. Becoming an effective and positive member of digital communities has been something to strive for. Common sense media has been sponsoring seminars and conventions for students as early as elementary school aged to learn about how to conduct themselves in an online environment. With cyberbullying being such an enormous and important issue, some other aspects of appropriate online behavior have fallen to the wayside. Horrible things happen online every day, but people choose to ignore them and don’t see them as being ‘real,’ solely because they happened on cyberspace and not in person in front of their eyes.

‘Witnessing’ is no longer an acceptable response. Many online forums are calling for action in the best way they know how: educating young people as a preemptive measure against poor digital actions. There is now a ‘Digital Learning Day,’ (February 4th), a digital citizen week, held yearly in October, and an online curriculum devoted to educating people about the mysterious concept of being a digital citizen.

So many people are concerned with making the world a better place. Activists everywhere are constantly talking about saving the planet, planting trees, being a political activist, and countless other causes — there are so many they make your head spin. So why is no one talking about the other community that we are all a part of? Why are people still so uneducated about what it means to be a good digital citizen? Why is no one talking about the very real effects of online behavior?

It’s something that at least deserves thinking about.


About jenniferpetrella

21 year old graduate student living and working in NJ/NYC. I like cooking, writing, and making people laugh.


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