Digital Citizenship Tips for Families of Kids in Digital Environments

If you follow me on twitter @jhengstler, you may be aware that I have been fairly vocal about the Amanda Todd cyberbullying case. The case is a tragedy and my heart bleeds for Amanda and her family.

While this case has provided a rallying point for the issues of bullying, and cyberbullying, I have been working to widen the discussion to the notion of “digital citizenship” for BC schools. As a society, it seems much easier for us to identify inappropriate or unacceptable behavior, then to define good social norms (expected appropriate behaviors, etc.) for our use of technology. I believe that some kind of K-12 initiative around digital citizenship that defines core values and expected appropriate behaviors might be a good approach for schools to take to empower our society to deal productively and safely with technologies well into our future. It is clear that a discussion of cyberbullying, sexting and the like will need to be included, though exactly what “digital citizenship” might look like in our BC context is a matter for wider discussion (that I hope will happen soon). That said, I believe it needs to be strongly centered on our social values.

As with any issue that deals with values and how we behave, parents, guardians and families have a significant role to play. Below are some suggested digital citizenship tips and strategies that might help frame children’s use of technologies. These tips and strategies are adapted from my tweets on October 11, 2012 in response to a question posted to me by @LorraineJLola. 

Digital Citizenship Tips for Families of Kids in Digital Environments

1) Be clear on your family values—e.g. respect, tolerance, etc—discuss those with your child.

  • If you’re not sure where to start, look at some of the 8 universal values identified by the Institute for Global Ethics like love, truthfulness, fairness, respect, tolerance, responsibility, unity, freedom

2) Model what you want your children to do on or with technology. Show them through your use of technology the values and behaviors you expect.

  • Connect your behaviors to those values and speak to that connection.
  • You may have to get up to speed on a technology, but probably not your family values!

3) Teach that whatever we commit to digital environments is permanent & can/will be connected to us

  • There are no “do-overs” or “take-backs”—just damage control & taking responsibility.
  • No one is every truly anonymous–they share enough information that they can be tracked down.
  • Make sure what you do/say/post reflects well on you.

4) Teach that any information shared in “confidence” in a digital format is just a cut and paste away from being common knowledge for the world

  • If you want to share sensitive information with others, it may be best in face to face conversations.

5) Draft some rules for behavior and etiquette centered on your family values for how members of the family are expected to use technology in the house & out of it

  • Reinforce that the values & rules of behavior expected in face-to-face life still apply in ALL digital environments and with ALL technologies
  • Just because you can’t see a person you interact with, or know his/her real name, you are still responsible for dealing with them civilly and accountable for what you say & do

6) With smaller children (say pre K to grade 3?), have them interact on digital environments through you or while you directly supervise.

  • Discuss what they want to say, post, share before it’s done—when and how content or conduct is appropriate or not,when and how others’ posted content or conduct is appropriate or not.

7)  If you give younger kids access to their own technology, or time on their own with technology, create some type of approval system for accounts, app downloads, etc. where you talk about why kids are permitted or not permitted a particular one.

  • Don’t download apps or create accounts on systems that go against your basic family values.
  • Discuss how they violate your values and expectations.

8) If you allow children to connect with others online, start with people they actually know in the real world–people they might talk to face to face.

  • It’s easier to think of a person you connect with in the face to face environment as being “real” online–with feelings, thoughts, etc.
  • If there are issues that arise online with people they really “know” they could talk about the issue in person, you could contact the parent/guardian, etc.

9) If working with older kids, talk to them about what types of apps they are running, content they are posting online.

  • Have critical discussions about whether the way they are conducting themselves in these digital environments represents the values you expect.

10) Before cutting children “loose” in online ‘big people’ social networks with their own accounts, think about allowing them to use “fenced”  systems where memberships are restricted, you define who they connect with, and content is monitored–by the service and by you.

  • Have critical discussions about whether the way they are conducting themselves in these digital environments represents the values you expect.

9) Teach kids & yourself how to do screen captures from whatever technology you’re using should they ever need to capture “evidence” of an event.

  • You might want to capture a record of good conduct, behavior, community contribution for a child’s digital footprint, eportfolio, or school project.
  • You might want to capture a record of inappropriate behavior your child experienced–or committed–to discuss or protect.
  • NOTE: Adults must be very careful when evidence of sexting is involved—as adults collecting sexting evidence involving minor children could be identified as pedophiles. It has happened before to some school officials who were later acquitted. Contact the local police if you are made aware of evidence of sexting.

10)   Know your school’s policies for dealing with technology. 

  • What does their acceptable use policy look/sound like? Can you see your values in it?
  • Is there a code of etiquette or behavioral expectations? Does it resemble yours?
  • Is there clear language to deal with digital aggression–discipline, data collection, etc.?
  • If you feel the policies need revision (or creation!)—work with the school to draft new language–or locate people who can help.

11)   Know your children’s friends & cultivate their trust. Discuss your family values with them if they are visiting your house.

  • Your child’s friends might tell you things about your child—even if your own child won’t.

12)   Know that cyberbullying—digital aggression—is significantly different from any schoolyard bullying you might have experienced

  • It’s 24/7 & follows you everywhere. There is not walking away from it.
  • “Just turn it off” or “Just delete your account” is not a sufficient response.
  • People may believe that they are anonymous in digital environments and may conduct themselves in ways they never would face-to-face.

13)   Don’t be afraid to ask for support to educate yourself or keep your children safe

  • Educate yourself if you think you need to know more about a digital topic: many experts will reply to your emails or posts on their blogs.
  • If you think your child is at risk, involve police, child welfare, mental health professionals

That’s all I have for now. Anything else you would like to add?


2 Responses to Digital Citizenship Tips for Families of Kids in Digital Environments

  1. […] I encourage  you all to have a look in light of the tragic, cyberbullying case of Amanda Todd. Digital Citizenship Tips for Families of Kids in Digital Environments – we will be discussing these key points and other ways to stay safe when working/playing […]

    • jhengstler says:

      If there are any tips or content you would like to add, please let me know. I’ve kept it a bit general so that families and schools can form their “norms” based on their own values–which may not be exactly like mine. For example, in my family we have a rule that no pictures may be taken of naked bodies or “private” body parts on devices–ever! This was one of my “cardinal rules” for technology use for my children. My younger son violated this rule last year (age 6 at the time) to create an avatar in an offline game–I stress OFFline. He lost his iPod for a solid 3 months.(Though I must admit I was so appalled considering what I do, that initially I said 6 months and reduced it to 3!) It was shortly after he got the iPod and he asked nearly every day if the 3 months was “up yet”. The iPod sat on the highest shelf in the kitchen where he saw it every morning. He became a cautionary tale for his older brother, as well as their friends. That said, when I discussed the Amanda Todd story with my boys (7 & 9) in terms they’d understand, I asked them, “What would you do differently if your friends asked you to ‘flash'(having explained what flashing is)?” they promptly responded, “Not flash, Mama.”

      We also have a rule, no pictures of others without their permission, and if those others are kids–permission must come from the parent/guardian. Again, my younger son took a picture this month of a boy who had a birthday during a commute on a ferry. I asked my son, “Did you have permission?” He replied, “No.” So he had to delete it. My older son said, “I’ll watch to make sure he deletes it….He deleted it.” During a recent radio interview, when I discussed that incident, the host called me “a tough mom”–though not in a bad way!

      Another value that my husband and I have for our children re. technology, is that they have to “have some skin in the game” so that a device is connected with real value. While Santa, or grandma–or whomever–could have “given” them their iPods, we said that we would let these folks know that it would not be OK with us. ( I said I would call or write Santa to let him know that this would not be an acceptable Christmas gift.) In fact, while the boys had saved sufficient funds from past cheques for birthdays and events, we said that only 1/2 the full value of the iPod could come from the saved money–the remaining half had to be “sweat equity”. They worked for my husband’s businesses and myself doing odd jobs to save the other half. They needed to know that devices are bought with money that somebody earned through hard work at some point. Devices are not disposable, carelessly left behind, and must be treated with respect. If my boys break them, they pay for repairs, replacement, etc. They even buy their own apps (approved first by me) most of the time–and will split costs between them if they want the same ones.

      Any apps that we download have to pass my muster of not doing anything we’d consider “bad” in the real world. For example, there are apps that the boys’ friends had where players would throw things at a person in a virtual office. My boys wanted it and though their friends had it, I pointed out to my kids that this would be bullying–we don’t do that in real life, so we’re not doing it through a device. Recently a friend of my boys used my younger son’s image in an app called “Kick the Buddy”. My younger son told me–I guess he had internalized the rules and if it wasn’t OK for him, he found it odd that his friend could do it. When my son described what was done to ‘him’ in the ‘game’, I pointed out that if that happened in real life, it would be bullying & that was not OK. I told my son that I would contact the friend’s mother. I know the friend’s mom socially, consider her a ‘good parent’ so I felt comfortable approaching her. I texted her about the incident and cut/paste the wikipedia info on what happens in the game (as she didn’t know anything about the game). I explained our rule in our house, and asked if she would talk to her son about not using any of my kids’ images in these types of games. I’m not sure if she removed the game completely, but I know she was interested in what was happening in the game. While I didn’t feel comfortable establishing values for her, I did share what we do, my rationale, and I hope engendered some conversation around that dinner table.

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