When I was in high school, a friend passed out flyers in the hallway asking for help with his Eagle Scout service project. On a crisp Saturday morning, a group of us gathered in a local pioneer cemetery and spent the day pulling weeds, clearing ivy and scrubbing moss off gravestones.
It was fun working together side by side to make a small yet tangible change within our immediate community. Still, I can’t help but wonder what the project would have looked like if he’d had access to all of the digital tools available to students today. What might he have achieved?
Numerous researchers have become fascinated by the ways digital media are changing how young people engage in civic issues — and policymakers are taking notice. The Obama Foundation recently issued a call to re-examine the concept of digital citizenship. The announcement came on the heels of Washington state’s new law requiring a statewide study of how schools are integrating digital citizenship education in their curriculum. It’s among the first of its kind in the country, and many other states are now considering similar legislation.
The heightened awareness is reshaping our concept of digital citizenship. Rather than just warning young people about online risks or trying to curtail their activities, leaders are realizing the importance of helping students leverage the power of digital media to work toward social justice and equity.
During a recent refresh of the ISTE Standards for Students, a new definition of digital citizenship emerged. Feedback from educators revealed a shift in perspective that “spoke to students’ use of technology to make the world a better place,” says Carolyn Sykora, senior director of the ISTE Standards department.
“Participants recognized students were doing many good deeds using digital tools like crowdfunding to raise money or using social media to mobilize action for causes they cared about.”
This is what civic engagement looks like in the digital age.
Breaking down barriers to social action
For today’s students, the internet removes many of the barriers that have contributed to a decades-long decline in civic engagement. Traditional modes of social action, such as joining community groups or volunteering, can seem time-consuming and burdensome to students who are already overwhelmed by their busy lives. Many lack the motivation to put in the effort required.
Digital media, on the other hand, can offer a “path of least resistance” for young people, says Harvard researcher Lindsay Pettingill.
“While online, young people can come and go from sites as they please, and they can make the best use of their time by multitasking — talking to friends, writing emails and checking the sports scores — all while a video they are contributing to or a local news site or YouTube is uploading,” she says. “They don’t have to leave the house, and they don’t have to put down the things they are tethered to. Rather than see these ‘social facts’ as debilitating to democracy, they should be leveraged to get the most out of young people’s desire to be active and feel a part of something beyond themselves.”
For students who have grown up holding the digital world in the palm of their hands, the internet is the most natural place to take action. It’s where they already are, socializing with their peers and exploring their identities.
For many, working toward social equality and change is simply an organic extension of their online behavior. Rather than taking place in a silo disconnected from students’ regular activities, civic participation can now become interwoven into the fabric of their digital lives.
“The internet offers a new model of civic participation, one measured by one's level of engagement as opposed to one's time commitment,” says researcher Margaret Weigel. “One can sign online petitions, vote in online elections and contribute $5 to a cause of choice, all from a computer screen.”
Students today are empowered with a whole new box of tools with which to act. Online spaces can amplify students’ voices while breaking down barriers to civic participation. Social media serves as a potent means for coordinating and mobilizing people who are geographically dispersed. But will students capitalize on these opportunities?
That, Weigel says, remains to be seen.
Putting digital citizenship into action
Studies suggest young people are awakening to their digital power.
Nearly 60 percent of teens create digital content, and one in three share their creations online. And in a nationwide survey, more than 40 percent of young people reported engaging in at least one online act of participatory politics, defined as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.”
When asked to create a plan to mobilize the public around environmental issues, one high school student offered the following plan:
“OK, so first there would be like a story or something that I'd hear on the news. Then I would, for example, post that on Facebook. I'd be, like, ‘Look at this, people. Do you see this? Do you think this is right? Do you think you, your family and the people in the city is benefiting from this? I don't think so. So, we need to stop this.’ And I'd have something like, you know, ‘Who's with me?’ And then we go from there.
“There's always a group that can be organized out of anything,” he added.
But there’s a big difference between posting something on Facebook and following a project through to its end. When posts go viral, events can quickly spiral out of control, leaving young instigators reeling from the impact of their digital participation — even when the outcome is overwhelmingly positive. Today’s digital citizens need to be prepared for the possibility of massive success.
That’s where we come in. It’s up to parents, educators and leaders to support students in putting digital citizenship into action while also helping them understand:
The scale and scope of online action
In one study, nearly half of the students surveyed failed to include social media as part of a strategy to effect change. Why? Possibly because they still haven’t grasped how digital tools can expand the scale and scope of their actions, says researcher Amelia Peterson. Students need to consider scale when engaging online, asking questions such as, “How big could I go? How big do I want to go?”
The efficacy of digital participation
Online modes of civic engagement — such as investigating issues, creating and circulating content, and engaging in dialogue about civic matters — are often dismissed as unimportant or disconnected from “real” social action, says researcher Margaret Rundle. Reinforcing the significance and efficacy of these actions can help encourage students to take advantage of the tools at their disposal.
The implications of success
The odds of a social media post going viral are low, but it’s always a possibility. Students can prepare for this contingency by thinking beyond a project’s immediate goal and considering the what ifs. For example, “Who can I turn to for help if this gets bigger than I expected?”
The nature of civic engagement is changing, says researcher Amelia Johns. Today’s students are “the standard bearers of what the digital world is going to look like in the future, and, therefore, the shapers of what citizenship online will entail.”