Better digital citizenship – Be kind online

Do Not Feed the Troll, By Sam Fentress (traced to SVG by James Hales) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Do Not Feed the Troll, By Sam Fentress (traced to SVG by James Hales) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Digital citizenship quite rightly receives a lot of attention at the moment in schools. The focus tends to be on cyber-bullying and considering the consequences of kids’ digital footprints. This makes a lot of sense, but I wonder if we sometimes have the focus in the wrong place?

We focus on telling kids ‘be safe‘ but the message to all should be ‘make safe‘. Much like the misguided advice to given to women to stop them from being attacked, such as telling them how to dress, where to go and who to go with, we place too much responsibility on the victims to protect themselves and not enough on making the perpetrators of the problem accountable or in training people how to better behave. Particularly in the English classroom, I think we have a unique place to be able to offer guidelines for behaviour online that could help the next generation make the internet a safer space for all. One suggestion for better digital citizenship that often gets mentioned is: be kind. The list of 8 guidelines below suggests how students can be kind online.

A growing number of classes are producing their work on blogs for the world to see. This is a wonderful way to have the class extend beyond the four walls of the classroom. For the most part, this publishing is regarded as a way for students to share their work, but the stronger opportunity it provides is the way it encourages them to comment upon each other’s ideas.

On the internet, most of the time, ‘comment’ is the wrong verb to describe what we should aim for in online discourse. Too often, ‘comments’ are fired off from a distance where the true personal damage they cause is barely witnessed. ‘Comment’ implies making a considered and weighty pronouncement on an issue. Yet in the online battles that erupt around volatile issues, where the damage often happens, comments often come from a place of ignorance, bigotry or malice. Ignorance can be forgiven, but it must also be accounted for and corrected. Not knowing something is not shameful, but refusing to learn when the opportunity presents itself is.

It is all too easy to comment online, and as a result we filter out own thoughts too poorly. Here are some general guidelines to constraining your online comments in order to help keep the Internet a safe environment for all and a rigorous forum for important ideas. I’d like to see these ideas shared with students, and not only applied to the comments they leave on each other’s class work, but also carried into other fora, such as Reddit and the ever murky YouTube comments section.

Eight Guidelines for Commenting

  1. Do not respond when the only source for your opinion is your own emotional response, gut reaction, instinct or ‘common sense.’ Do rely upon trustworthy sources and consider alternative opinions from trustworthy sources when they exist.
  2. Do not engage if you are too emotionally invested to consider alternate viewpoints reasonably. Do attempt to honestly (and privately) explore the reason you have such a strong feeling about the issue.
  3. Listen carefully to people who claim to be adversely impacted by an issue, and do not respond with a knee-jerk reaction. Do ask what you could personally do to lessen the adverse impact they feel.
  4. Accept that somebody’s lived experience is more credible than something you did not experience first hand, regardless of how highly you think of the source of your information.
  5. Accept that people can have different lived experiences. One does not negate the another.
  6. Understand that your right to express an opinion does not come before somebody else’s right to be safe.
  7. Understand that your right to free speech does not mean somebody facilitating the discussion in which you are taking part has to accept, permit or validate everything you say. It only means you won’t be arrested unless you break a law with your speech.
  8. Ask questions only if you think you do not already know the answer. If you ask a question as a trap in order to catch someone in what you perceive to be a lie or false thinking, you are not asking the question in good faith. This may be ignored in some situations, but the better path to take is to only ask questions in good faith. Online discussions should not be about winning or scoring points, but about promoting knowledge.

This list grew out of my own observations of how online discussion around hot-topics such as race relations, feminism, religion, and politics always seem to go. I don’t think my list is exhaustive, so if you have suggestions to add, I’d love to hear them and happily amend the post where appropriate.

Related post: Modelling Good Digital Citizenship

Better digital citizenship – Be kind online