Digital Citizenship: Where Are We Now?

This tweet was initiated by a few folks who are very smart and who do really good work. 

Katia  I am Stronger

Jennifer  Social Ledia

Bonnie  Experience Required: Walking the Talk in Digital Teaching & Learning

All of their work as I said I believe is really important and you would do well to follow them and their work. Smart people indeed. They offer a positive, useful way of understanding media literacy. However, looking at this from another perspective has me thinking that we’ve adopted a bit of an “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Or “this stuff isn’t going away, let’s make the best of it” or “you can use technology for good or evil, let’s focus on the good” At one time or another I’ve likely used these phrases and even presented on them. However, I do see myself questioning this to some degree. Mostly because there’s somewhat of a conciliatory message that’s being shared. The message that might be being lost here is the overall negative impact and force that we are facing. This perspective is not only born out of my own experiences but certainly the research bares it out. 

I think a couple of things are really important to consider. First, technology is not neutral. I still hear people speak as if it’s just a matter of how we use it. My graduate advisor Rick Schwier, still one of the smartest people I know, helped me understand this very early. If you need convincing, read Postman or McLuhan. If you don’t know who they are, you have some catching up to do. In fact, stop reading this, go read something of their work and come back. Essentially every technology has a bias or intended way to use it. Without question, the apps on your phone and social media, in general, want you using it all the time. While knowing this is critical, it’s also critical to understand that most people aren’t able to fully outwit its inherent power. 

smartphone addicted school teenager boy close up photo

Secondly, things have changed. I’m generally a pretty optimistic person and I think that’s a particularly useful disposition to have in education. Education should be about hope and possibilities. However, when I think about social media and technology in general, I’m seeing less hope and possibly than I did a decade ago. When many of my contemporaries were exploring these spaces, we did so with a child-like innocence to test the waters of what these spaces might offer. The notion of “followers” did not play a role. Communities were smaller and intentions were less clouded with ulterior motives and interests. Like so many things, the Tragedy of the Commons has infiltrated these once-emerging spaces of newness and possibility. While some might be thinking, “it’s all in how you use it or who you connect with” I’m not so sure. Social media is always a weird mix of ideas and people. That’s part of its appeal. But the belief that you can simply filter out the things you don’t want to see is naive or at least getting more and more difficult to do. These spaces allow for any conversation. People might say “I only follow people who only talk about x” Yet as humans, we don’t fully compartmentalize ourselves. While we might talk about education most of the time, we can’t help but talk about other stuff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, I like that but that also invites many unwarranted ideas and conversations to cloud that space. Even if you’re fully able to talk only education, the lack of nuance and emphasis on branding can create a very unsatisfying experience.  For young people, the number of example of suicides related to technology is worth talking about. The research around added stress is worth exploring with students. 

I’ve seen my own children and other teens and young adults recognize the toxic nature that social media exudes. I don’t know of many who don’t see this. Yet, most just live in this and try to filter out what’s important and yet inevidentably get caught up in gossip, political battles of misinformation and feelings of inadequacies. These pitfalls are nearly impossible to weed out of one’s feeds. All of my kids, all between the ages of 20-31 have deleted at least one major social media space: either Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. They don’t regret this choice. 

I suppose what I’m really asking is: 
“What are the trade-offs?”
“What do we potentially gain and lose?”
“What would happen if we taught kids about social media and media literacy and suggested that abstience is an option?”

Let me share a few ideas about how we might think about digital citizenship moving forward. 

  • Continue to think of it as citizenship and not digital. 
    • Spend time reflecting on what it means to be a good citizen. 
  • Cite examples of positive and negative use of technology and social media
    • Get very comfortable with the nuances and reserve judgment. Let kids decide what and if social media has value and where its problematic 
  • Talk about mental health and technology 
    • Explore the research on the brain and stress
    • Engage in experiments of restraints and disconnection
    • Include the adults. This is not exclusively an issue for kids but an issue for everyone 
  • Think carefully about any policies you enact
    • Don’t make it punitive. Even if you conclude you think mobile phones are a distraction, focus on the benefits for students. Allow them to recognize it as a distraction. This isn’t about control but it should be about informed choices. 
    • Be okay with teachers having different policies. Not every discipline warrants the use of technology. If a teacher doesn’t see value, don’t force them to use it. Conversely if a teacher does see value don’t restrict them. 

The closet analogy I can make here is sex education. This isn’t a topic that was always explored in schools. For years it was seen as something outside the purview of K-12 education. When it was introduced, abstinence was the sole focus. Today there is less judgment and more of a focus on providing all the facts and options. While many would adopt the “We know you’re all going to have sex anyway, so here’s how to do it safely” as the dominant approach, I would argue that abstinence likely offers better outcomes for many. I don’t know anyone who said: “I wish I had had more sex when I was a teenager”.  As adults, we know how powerful and amazing sex can be in the right context but we also know the potential damage and problems it can create and the fact that many young teenagers are ill-equipped to handle the consequences. 

So I wonder if moving forward we’ll see a shift in our approach and attitudes towards technology and social media in schools? What changes or at least nuanced tweaks do you think are missing from the current narrative? Maybe this is exactly how many are approaching it. My concern lies with those of us who have experienced the benefits of social media in the past and are struggling to acknowledge it’s not the same as it was a decade ago. There was certainly more innocence, hope and wonder that came with connecting with strangers. As always these are my ramblings, I’m sure others disagree or have alternative views. I’d love to hear them.