As long as internet safety and digital citizenship are presented as a business, with products to be purchased to prevent problems, curricula that purport to immunize children, and professionals required to deliver messages, it’s no wonder that parents and teachers are paralyzed by the prospect of helping children negotiate their lives online.
At the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) Annual Conference, held in Washington, DC last week, there was a striking confluence of those who view digital citizenship as an extension of our daily roles as citizens, and those who have a vested interest in keeping the alarm bells going in order to draw parents and teachers into their camp for speaking engagements, stand-alone curricula, web-tracking, web-blocking, or mobile phone tracking services.
Mike Ribble, co-author of ISTE’s Digital Citizenship in Schools, started a rumble that was picked up by successive speakers when he stated that it is time to drop "digital" and talk about citizens that are using technology and how they are using it. Similarly, Anne Collier of Net Family News and ConnectSafely.org suggested we recognize that our online activities are so integrated in our daily lives that we should shake off the old context of a separation between "virtual reality" and reality. That puts our digital and non-digital behavior back in the realm of parents and classroom teachers – it stops being a business or sensational new story and goes on the list of “everything I learned in kindergarten”.
The need for children and adults to understand the importance of Internet Safety and Digital Citizenship has spawned multiple non-profits and a plethora of for-profit offerings that promise to come in and make it all better for school systems and for parents. Since our culture has lost the “I can do it” attitude and now values the pre-packaged and store-bought over things that are actually homemade, we are lured into thinking that doing it ourselves is just too hard or will be insufficient. But in the end, what could be simpler than the Golden Rule? The bottom line is always the golden rule – teach empathy, tolerance, civility, and how to stand up for ourselves and for what is right. Teach it at home, at school, in every class. Integrate it into dinner table conversations; bring it up in the gossip sessions in the car on the way home from swim practice. If all of us, parents, teachers, leaders of all types, feel empowered to create their own messages, we might not be able to make a living out of digital citizenship, but we would more rapidly succeed in creating better citizens both in virtual reality and reality.