Over the years, I’ve fallen in and out of love with the idea of “digital citizenship.” For me, the term still evokes the promise of empowered, online civic action. But so often, in practice, what’s implemented in our schools as “digital-citizenship education” is watered down to a list of dos and don’ts for young people that is hyperfocused on etiquette, warnings about “stranger danger,” and the need to be kind online.
This certainly proved true this spring, in the transition to emergency remote education. I started seeing infographics describing how students might demonstrate digital citizenship in Zoom class meetings. Tips included turning their cameras on, making eye contact, and not eating during the meeting.
I, like so many educators and other professionals, practically lived on video-conferencing platforms this spring. And I didn’t follow those rules. I don’t always keep my camera on (hello, schoolwide faculty meetings!) and I certainly do sometimes have a bite to eat during a meeting, especially on those back-to-back-to-back Zoom days. But I still contributed meaningfully to those spaces.
If those dos and don’ts don’t even accurately describe “professional online etiquette,” why are we holding them up as a model for students to emulate as if that’s what good digital citizenship looks like?
This is just one example of a larger pattern: Digital-citizenship conversations tend to focus almost exclusively on establishing appropriate user behavior. The problem is that this framing papers over the actual challenges of participating in online spaces. In 2020—amid the ongoing debate over content-moderation policies, distrust of expertise, conspiracy theorizing, growing attention on algorithmic bias, and radicalization by digitally savvy far-right communities—our problems online aren’t just the result of users not being polite enough to each other.
We need to move beyond a moralizing digital-citizenship education and toward an ecologically-minded one."
In fact, many examples from the last several months have demonstrated the true complexities of participating online as digital citizens. An early spate of Zoombombing (in some instances, horrifically offensive and potentially traumatic) focused our attention on technical security failures and the need for informed user controls. Students of color have exposed their experiences of racism at private high schools via anonymous social-media sharing, spurring difficult conversations on campuses. Facebook and YouTube claim they’re taking swift action against false information about COVID-19, but networked misinformation campaigns have successfully sidestepped these policies to spread harmful medical advice and sow the seeds of distrust of a future vaccine.
Young Black creators who are turning to TikTok to share content in support of Black Lives Matter not only suspected the platform of suppressing their activist content but also faced racist feedback from other users. (The future of TikTok for American teenagers has grown even more complicated in recent weeks, as President Donald Trump ordered a ban on the app beginning in September—if the inevitable legal challenges from the company fail.)
We’ve seen online organizing co-opted, in one instance by gun-advocacy and -lobbying groups to appear like a grassroots “reopen the economy” movement. In another instance, K-pop fans and TikTok users took credit for the low attendance at Trump’s Tulsa rally in June, after reportedly coordinating to reserve thousands of tickets under fake names. And amid all of this, sudden remote learning has highlighted inequalities in home internet access.
The dominant messages of digital-citizenship education repeated year after year—be kind, THINK before you post, beware of strangers, and, now, don’t eat on camera—do not prepare students to grapple with the type of participation that these examples illustrate. In fact, they miss the point entirely.
How, then, might we redefine digital-citizenship education to meet this moment?
The key might be in where we put our emphasis. In her book Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, sociologist Carrie James draws a distinction between moral and ethical thinking: While moral thinking considers those close to us, ethical thinking demands “the capacity to look beyond one’s own interests, feelings, and empathy for close relations in order to make decisions that are in the interests of a larger group, public, or society.”
The dilemmas users encounter online require this more abstract ethical thinking, yet popular digital-citizenship messaging focuses almost entirely on moral thinking.
The problem is that doing so trains students’ digital senses to only notice the intentional, immediate, or known impact of their choices. In reality, we may never know the impact of our actions online; we may never see where our content travels or understand how that meme we shared has been weaponized by others to target communities we aren’t a part of.
Ecological metaphors may better describe the digital landscape. “Our network connections are as dense and robust as redwood root systems,” writes communications professor Whitney Phillips. “So, in addition to everyday best practices, we must also critically reflect on why the forest looks the way it does, how it was allowed—indeed, how it was encouraged—to become so polluted, and when these particular trails were blazed, by whom, and at whose expense.”
To meet the needs of 2020, we need to move beyond a moralizing digital-citizenship education and toward an ecologically-minded one, one that not only asks students to deeply consider the many and varied implications of their own actions but also how the digital tools and platforms we use create an environment that encourages or discourages truly ethical and equitable participation. In other words, digital citizens must learn to not only be concerned with their own individual actions but also in how these actions fit together and interact within the larger ecosystem. Which means they also need to understand how that ecosystem works.
Of course, that is a more complicated conversation to have. But without this understanding of digital citizenship education, we are not preparing young people to navigate our increasingly digitally-mediated world.
The first step is simple: Let’s stop calling conversations about etiquette and appropriate behavior “digital citizenship,” because it’s not.
True digital citizenship must be developmentally scaffolded and dynamic because the environment online is ever-changing. It will also necessitate an interdisciplinary approach, as we help students participate in an information-abundant, data-rich, historically situated, creative, and emotionally challenging digital ecosystem.
It isn’t good enough to be simply well-intentioned within systems built on injustice and inequity. The same is true of our participation online. We can develop a digital-citizenship education that helps us face the limitations of good intentions and asks students to co-create a more ethical and just digital world.