Until recently, most digital citizenship efforts have focused primarily on teaching youth to protect themselves online. But this is only the beginning: digital media provide unique opportunities for youth to become involved, to speak out, and to effect change both online and offline. While Canadian youth believe that online spaces should be free of racism, sexism and harassment, youth are often reluctant to speak out against prejudice and bullying online. Helping youth to understand their rights – as consumers, as members of a community, as citizens and as human beings – is central to empowering them to deal with cyberbullying, hate speech and online harassment. To respond to hate and harassment online, though, youth need not only to be trained in particular digital literacy skills but to be empowered to speak out and exercise their full rights as digital citizens.
As we develop our definitions of digital literacy and digital citizenship, therefore, it’s important to remember that citizenship brings with it not just responsibilities but rights as well.
Digital citizenship may involve using digital media to engage with issues in the local community or state politics, and may be as broadly focused as tuition rates or as narrow as the quality of school lunches: MediaSmarts’ research found that 35 percent of Canadian youth had joined or supported an activist group online at least once. If we can empower young people to influence their online cultures so that respect is the norm, we can empower witnesses to take action – and perhaps make the more direct forms of intervention safer (though there will always be situations where indirect interventions are a better idea, such as when intervening directly might put them – or others – at risk.) Youth also need to know that speaking out can make a difference: research has shown that if just ten percent of the members of a group hold an unshakeable belief, that belief will spread to the majority. In fact, even smaller numbers can influence the values of their cultures: other studies have found that group members are much less likely to conform to the group’s attitudes if even one person expresses a different opinion.
Digital citizenship may also focus specifically on influencing online communities, such as campaigns aimed at improving the climate of social media. Because of the corporate nature of nearly all networked environments frequented by youth (all of the most popular online platforms among Canadian youth are owned by for-profit corporations), it is also important to include consumer activism in our definition of digital citizenship. This involves a recognition of the corporate nature of most online “communities” and “public spaces” as well as an understanding of what rights youth possess as consumers and how to exercise them, including using platforms’ complaint/reporting mechanisms and organizing public pressure campaigns (such as the effort to get Facebook to be more responsive to complaints about hate material.) In order for youth to exercise their rights as consumers, though, they need to understand the commercial considerations of the media they use – particularly those that use their data and personal information as a source of revenue.
This approach provides the essential link between teaching youth what they can do to influence the values of their online and offline spaces and empowering them to actually do it. Young Canadians need to know that they don’t give up their rights when they go online and, in fact, may have rights they’re not aware of. For instance, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child both provide youth with essential rights to privacy, to free expression, to education and access to information, and to be free from discrimination, fear, violence and harassment. If youth are not aware of these rights, they may choose not to engage fully with digital media, which can lead to narrowed opportunities and, as an ironic result, lower levels of confidence, resiliency and safety skills.
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