Carrie Rogers-Whitehead
Digital citizenship starts with the person  not the tool!

Why do we do what we do? It's an age-old question. From getting too close to a fire to getting online excessively, our decisions aren't always good for us.

There is a model for understanding that irrational, sometimes frustrating, human behavior. It's prevention science, which looks at risk factors that influence unhealthy behaviors and protective factors that mitigate or prevent those behaviors.

What prevention science looks like in action

Prevention science is a multidisciplinary science that includes behavioral science, genetics, adolescent health, public health, neuroscience, social science and more. It also includes digital citizenship. If there's a human involved, prevention science can help.

Let me show prevention science in practice. Repeated studies from various outlets report that most youth exposure to online sexual content occurs accidentally. Most students, particularly girls, do not seek it out. Thus, a risk factor for exposure to negative online behavior are accidents. And if I want to prevent exposure in students, one way is to decrease those accidents.

This is particularly effective with young children, who may not have their own devices but borrow them from an older family member or friend. Digital Respons-Ability, an organization I founded, educates people on how to become empowered digital citizens.

When we teach young children about online safety, we teach children to always ask permission before using a device. One game we play with young children is a version of the old schoolyard game "Mother May I?" Through the giggles and the wiggles, we reinforce the concept of asking for permission.

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Preventing problems early keeps bad habits from becoming entrenched

Prevention science is not a 100 percent fail-safe mechanism. Students, even young children, are going to be inadvertently exposed to online sexual content. However, if I can instill a new habit of children asking permission to use internet-connected devices, I can reduce the possibility of exposure.

Helping just one student is important, but digital citizenship is a big global issue. How do we make a bigger impact? Diana Fishbein, a neuroscientist and the director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives (NPSC), sees prevention science as a scalable model.

"If we want to have impact on what it is that we study, prevention has the most value,” Fishbein says. “If we can prevent the problems early, we don't have to worry about what happens when they become entrenched in the individual or in the fabric of society."

The NPSC has created a translational model to help academics and practitioners from various fields.

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(From TBM 2016; 6:5-16 doi: 10.1007/s13142-015-0376-2)

Bringing together research from many fields

This translational model helps guide and inform research and practices to globalize and influence policy and public opinion. "This emerging body of transdisciplinary research has extraordinary potential for preventing behavior disorders and promoting resilience," Fishbien says.

A translational model seeks to bring together research from many fields. Digital citizenship, like other fields, is often taught in silos: an individual teacher, media specialist, parent, tech director. These individuals may work by themselves, on a small team or in a single school, which can be a problem, according to Fishbien. “Research silos, communication challenges across disciplines and narrow funding streams create barriers to integration.”

Digital citizenship, with the newness of technology and the field, is both in the discovery science (T0) phase and a step beyond to T1 with program development. More research and integration is needed. I'm working with my company to spread research and practices, but we are just a few drops. To truly make long-lasting behavioral, cultural and even political change, it takes a river.

Some questions to think about:

  • What about our current digital citizenship programs and interventions work?
  • What are the incentives that drive positive online behavioral changes?
  • How can we take evidence-based prevention principles and infuse them in a digital environment?
  • How can we better track and evaluate behavioral change in our digital citizenship programs?
  • Can we link our digital citizenship programs to a behavioral risk factor?
  • How can we better collaborate out of our educational silos?
  • What are some disciplines that should be part of the digital citizenship conversation?

Where can you start to implement prevention science in your organization? Here are four ways to begin: 

1. Familiarize yourself with risk factors in youth.

The Centers for Disease Control has lists of risk and protective factors in areas of suicide, violence and substance abuse.

2. Critically examine your existing programs.

Do they address any risk factors? Are they addressing the person or the tech tool?

3. Familiarize yourself with evidence-based programs.

BluePrints is a healthy youth development program that can be a model for implementing a program of your own.

4. Share your work!

Everyone benefits from more research and practices. ISTE’s Digital Citizenship PLN is one avenue for sharing.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead researches and practices digital citizenship with her company Digital Respons-Ability. Her research will be appearing in her forthcoming book by Rowman and Littlefield "Digital Citizenship: Teaching and Practice from the Field."