Raising good digital citizens

Two happy teenage girls using laptop

At a glance

  • Today's kids need new skills to behave safely and responsibly online.
  • Good digital citizenship follows the same basic rules as good citizenship in the offline world.
  • Filters only prevent some kinds of unsuitable material being accessed via your computer; parents still need to be vigilant.
  • It's important for parents to model good online behaviour – such as courtesy, obeying the law (not downloading something illegally) and protecting yourself.

We're always reminding our kids to "pick up after yourself" and "cover your mouth when you cough", but lately many parents have had to add rules like "don't bring your mobile to the dinner table" and more importantly, "don't use my credit card to shop online".

We're the first generation of parents responsible for equipping our children with ‘digital citizenship' skills – how to use technology safely and responsibly, and how to evaluate, manage and use the information and tools they find online.

The UK website www.digizen.org, created by Childnet International, describes good digital citizenship as "building safe spaces and communities, understanding how to manage personal information, and about ... using your online presence to grow and shape your world in a safe, creative way, and inspiring others to do the same".

But don't our kids know more about all this than we do? Aren't they the ‘digital natives' (a name coined by US education writer Marc Prensky)?

While it's likely your 10-year-old may have more experience with technology than you, adults and kids tend to start using the technology long before they're taught about responsible online behaviour.

When something that appears online makes a child feel uncomfortable, they need to know how to deal with it.

According to a report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in 2009, less than 18 per cent of respondents had formal training in how to use the internet. So, if you sometimes feel like you're making it up as you go along, you're not alone, it turns out most of us are.

Being PC on the PC (or Mac)

Schools and parents share the role of teaching good digital citizenship. Dianne Marshall, who has managed the introduction of laptops to all NSW Year 9 public school students through the Digital Education Revolution, says a good place to start is to follow the same rules for being a good real-world citizen.

"Digital citizenship shares the same values we teach students to observe in the offline world: obey the law, have respect for others, act civilly and sensibly," Dianne says.

"Being a good citizen can involve anything from following certain email protocols to paying for proprietary content online."

Digital citizenship checklist

Although the topic of digital citizenship is as broad as the internet itself, US educator and author Mike Ribble divides the concept into categories you may want to discuss with your child.

1. Digital etiquette
An obvious example is using lower case letters unless you really want to SHOUT AT SOMEONE. There are also issues such as removing previous contacts' names when forwarding a message on, what to forward to others, keeping attachments as small as possible, making the subject line clear, and checking spelling and grammar.

2. Digital communication
There are lots of ways to communicate – but are they equally appropriate every time? For example, your son wants his best mate to come over. His parents may prefer to be phoned and asked in person (so they can verify it's OK with you) than have your son text the invitation to their child. It takes knowledge and judgement to communicate well. As children venture onto chat rooms and social networking sites like Facebook, they'll also have to make decisions about who to communicate with, how much information to share with them and how to interact appropriately with online contacts.

3.  Digital literacy
"Everyone needs to spend time learning about technology before using it. Parents and teachers need to lead their children by providing a good example of technology use," says Mike.

The internet is an amazing research tool if you know how to assess the credibility of a site and its content – whether it's checking consumer reviews about a new fridge or research for an assignment, parents and kids need to learn and use these skills.

4.  Digital commerce
Just because you can get something online doesn't always mean you should. "What's appropriate to buy or sell on eBay?" and "how do you protect yourself against identity theft?" are just two questions we should discuss with our kids.

If your child is old enough to buy things online, do they know how to check that a seller is legitimate and that the transaction is secure?

5.  Digital law
Cutting and pasting information from a website into an assignment isn't just lazy – it's also plagiarism. Downloading music or videos illegally is also something your child needs to be warned against. And if they argue that "everyone does it", tell them about 32-year-old US mum Jammie Thomas-Rasset, who was recently ordered to pay $US1.9 million to the Recording Industry Association of America for illegally downloading 24 songs in 2005.

6.  Digital rights and responsibilities 
The new-found freedom of being able to publish our thoughts online needs to be balanced with awareness that our words and photos can be hurtful to others and can exist online for many years. When something that appears online makes a child feel uncomfortable, they need to know how to deal with it.

7.  Digital health and wellness
Blackberry thumb', eye strain, hearing loss, back and neck problems never bothered us as kids but are things we need to protect our children against. We also need to be aware of psychological issues such as internet addiction and cyberbullying.

8.  Digital security (self-protection)
How much information to give online, whether to post and tag photos, where to have a webcam, even where to keep your computer are some of the discussions each family needs to have about security.

And although filters are generally considered the first line of defence against some online threats, only 38 per cent of parents participating in the ACMA's Australia in the Digital Economy: Trust and Confidence said they had monitoring or filtering software on their child's computer. 

According to ACMA chairman Chris Chapman, we need to be more proactive in protecting ourselves online.

"Internet users are either not taking or only taking limited measures to ensure their online security," he says.

Filtering internet content is really an ‘entry level' requirement for any family. As much as filters can prevent many kinds of unsuitable content coming into your home, they don't protect children against cyberbullying, poor online communication skills, unintentional breaches of copyright, or most kinds of online fraud.

Schools have increased the focus on teaching good digital citizenship. As parents we need to be well-informed too, so we can demonstrate and reinforce those same skills at home.

You can find out more about choosing filtering software, firewalls, spyware and identity theft at ACMA's Cybersmart website.


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