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DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP What parents need to know!

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In a world where likes are king, Susannah Wood explores the challenges families face when it comes to keeping kids safe and well online
PHOTOS COURTESY OF Discovery Bay International School (DBIS)

If the last two years have taught us anything about the role technology will have in our lives going forward, it’s to expect more. More apps, more devices, more online interactions. To use a term we’re sadly all too familiar with these days: it’s endemic. Technology is ingrained in every part of our lives, whether we realise (like) it or not.

As humans, it’s in our nature to strive for progress, and we’ve certainly achieved a lot in recent years. But every new advance we make brings its own challenges, its own downsides, and as adults, it’s our job to support the next generation in navigating the highs and lows that creates.

What makes things tricky is that our children often know more about technology than we do. We might think we’re tech savvy, but most of us aren’t staring at our phones to research the latest online trends and the potential impact they’ll have on our offspring; no, we’re reading the news, we’re scrolling through Facebook, we’re uploading photos to Instagram, we’re escaping from reality for a while.


One of the most thought-provoking points I came across while researching this article was from a podcast with Angela Moriarty, Head of Learning Technologies at Discovery Bay International School (DBIS, www.dbis.edu.hk), who pointed out that if we’re going to put devices in our children’s hands, we have a responsibility to make sure they are safe while and as a result of using those devices.

It seems kind of obvious, but it got me thinking. Have I done everything I can as a parent to really understand how my children are using the devices they have access to? Do I check in with them enough? How are they being treated by their online contacts, and how are they treating others? Are my children good digital citizens?

Digital citizenship may be a contemporary phrase, but it’s not necessarily a contemporary concept. “You could almost take the word ‘digital’ out of it,” says Angela. “At DBIS, we ask our students to think about what being a responsible citizen means to them. Once they’ve explored that, we introduce the digital element. We ask them to think about who they interact with online and how those interactions make both them and their online contacts feel. Are they making a positive difference to the world in the way they use digital tools?

“As soon as students are exposed to using any kind of technology within our school, it’s our responsibility to make sure we educate them how to use it safely and responsibly. With our youngest children, it might be as simple as learning how to respect technology and handle it safely, but it can also be about understanding the importance of permissions, such as asking permission before using technology or asking for consent from another child to take their photograph.”


For older children, the topic becomes much broader, with multiple complex issues to consider, such as cyberbullying, privacy, fake news and social media – concepts that most parents never had to consider when growing up. These days, the online world is such a huge part of our children’s lives that schools have entire programmes dedicated to digital wellbeing.

“DBIS has a very robust digital citizenship programme,” says Angela. “We teach core concepts throughout the year and also run an annual Digital Citizenship Week, during which students focus on specific, age-appropriate themes.” Angela explains that it’s important to consider digital citizenship in all areas of learning and life and not just confine it to Learning Technologies lessons. In English classes, for example, students can be taught how to safely conduct effective online research and how to use the information they find appropriately and correctly – valuable skills for the ‘real’ world.

What we as parents need to ensure is that our children’s awareness of digital issues doesn’t get left at the school gate. Within the school environment, students are limited as to the digital content they can access. The concepts they’ve been taught are also fresh in their minds while on campus. It’s much trickier for children to stay mindful of digital responsibilities and model positive online behaviours when faced with real-life scenarios that aren’t necessarily being monitored.

Take WhatsApp for example. Officially, you have to be 16 years old to use it, but how many of us have family groups set up for ease of communication? Many children also set up groups with friends or classmates, although most schools actively discourage this. Nevertheless, these groups exist, and it’s all too easy for children to get caught up in the moment and type something they might later regret.

Angela warns that children need to be mindful of their ‘digital tattoo.’ “We used to use the term ‘digital footprint,’” she says, “but it’s actually more serious than that. The decisions we make online can shape us. Children need to understand the permanence of their online actions. Yes, you can delete something, but once it’s been published, and maybe seen by someone else, it can never truly be undone.

“Of course, children make mistakes from time to time, and in many subject areas students are taught that mistakes are good learning opportunities, but when it comes to digital citizenship, there are certain mistakes you don’t want children to make. We will always support students if they get themselves into a difficult digital situation, but the more discussions parents can have with their children on the topic to reinforce what we’re teaching at school, the better. Social media isn’t going anywhere; it’s just going to keep getting bigger, so we’ve got to do everything we can as adults to support our children in navigating it safely.”


One mistake many parents make is laying down a set of digital rules without involving their children in the decision-making process. Angela warns against this. “Children are more likely to adhere to a set of agreements if they’ve been involved in the creation of them,” she says. “Children need a voice; they need agency. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution though. It all comes down to your family values.”

It’s important to remember while discussing online guidelines and boundaries with your children that not all elements of the virtual world are equal. Now, more than ever before, children have access to a plethora of information due to online advances, including a wealth of enriching, educational content. Not everything screen-based is passive, and blanket technology bans can put children at a disadvantage. If a child is happy, engaged and learning from something they’re reading online, is that really any worse than if they’re reading it from a book?

Whatever rules your family decides to put in place, it’s vital that you monitor your children’s online activity. It’s also important that your children know you will check in from time to time and that they understand why that is necessary. Monitoring software can help, but physically looking through chats etc. will give you a much better idea of your child’s digital behaviour.

The best parental monitoring tool, however, is being present when your children are using technology. These days, that’s easier said than done. The pandemic and subsequent phases of online teaching have caused families to spread out into separate rooms when working or learning remotely, and that’s led both children and adults to develop new online habits. As parents, we need to recognise this and act accordingly, which includes making sure we model positive online habits and behaviours ourselves.

We also need to make sure we’re well informed; if you’re uncertain about something, look it up. Angela recommends two key online resources for parents: Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org), which offers need-to-know information for children, parents and teachers about online entertainment, and Thinkuknow (thinkuknow.co.uk), a UK-based education programme aimed at protecting children both on- and offline.

Resources such as these are invaluable when it comes to protecting children, and they give parents a fighting chance of staying informed in a world where the next big thing is just a click away.

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