Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has and will continue to have significant positive impacts on children and young people as a medium for the provision of education, recreation, networking and communication.
The potential of the internet is vast, and fear should not limit that potential. For many of us, the concept of citizenship is closely linked to expected good behaviour from citizens of a country. Citizenship is about doing what is right and responsible within a given social context. For children, it may be construed as being silent and afraid in a home where daddy is considered to be the tyrant. How do we define citizenship in the 21st century?
What is Cyber citizenship? Gone are the days when people were considered to be living only in a “human and natural world.” Over the years, another world has emerged which is different from the human and natural worlds: digital citizenship. Digital citizenship dwells more on how we behave in the light of the globally connected ecosystem in which we find ourselves. It is sometimes said that citizenship is directly related to behaviour and social organisation, and given that the Digital Age facilitates a unique blend of both kind of worlds, we need to update our perspectives about citizenship to provide a complete picture of who we are and how we go about our lives.
Realities of the virtual world
Digital Citizenship, which is commonly used interchangeably with Internet Safety, Digital Literacy and/or Media Literacy, is a topic we often take for granted in Ghana, even among those who are involved in professional communication.
Many of us handover car keys to our children when we are convinced that they are able to drive well, and learnt and understood the road signs and will be able to turn the steering wheel in an acceptable manner. We also ensure that they understand the role of the driver and pedestrian in road transportation, etc. As parents, we ensure that our children are safe and know how to operate a car before we hand over our cars to them. Why do we handover mobile phones or tablets as gifts to children without making sure they know how to use them?
Children can learn a lot of things that are beneficial to them over the internet. However, they can also learn a lot of harmful things and are exposed to potential risk over that same medium. Aside the Big 3–Cyberbullying, Online predators and Sexting–have we ever thought about the other aspects of internet use and how it can damage the mental and emotional growth of our children?
How mindful are you about your reputation? Do you know that your digital “footprint” today is how your future friends, employers, and others will likely judge you? Do you understand that your “footprint” includes not only what you post about yourself, but also what others post about you? This includes when you are “tagged” by friends and followers, including all those baby pictures mom began sharing years ago.
Ignorance of digital citizenship makes the a politician send inappropriate tweets, compels the teenager to post an unfavourable photo or comment about a friend, makes parents share personal information about their children. It becomes an embarrassing, permanent part of that child’s digital footprint. But even worst of all is when such lack of knowledge leads to perpetuation of cyberbullying and other dangerous activities. The consequences of this kind of ignorance cannot be undermined in the 21st century where everything shared in the virtual world becomes permanent, searchable, replicable, and can be seen by vast invisible audiences in the real world. It’s a mistake that never goes away.
Online predators and careless sexters
A lot of people post personal information without being mindful of the fact that posting on the Internet can be likened to doing so on a billboard. Therefore, knowing how, why, and when to give access to the internet to your children by buying a phone or tablet for them cannot be overstated.
In this 21st century, it is important that everyone (not only those with an email address but everybody in possession of a mobile phone) ask themselves what it means to operate within the basic rules of positive online relationships. How much are people being taught to avoid and/or prevent cyberbullying, sexting, online predators or other negative and potentially dangerous online relationships?
Do people really understand what it means to empathize with others if and when they observe (and they will) unfair treatment online? Aside parents, do our schools and law enforcements help provide information to children, parents, politician or celebrities on how to handle cyberbullying? How then do we start a dialogue on effective reporting system and begin to implement one in Ghana?
It is about time we empower ourselves, especially our young people, to handle a request from another person for a ‘sexy picture’ or get them to know what to do if they receive a sext message. In schools, children are expected to learn how to use technology effectively, but not how to conduct themselves online.
Digital Reputation and relationship footprints
According to the 2000 Population Census, adult illiteracy rate is 46.3%, constituting almost half of the population. How will majority of the Ghanaian public understand Identity theft, hacking, viruses, malware, etc.? How many people with e-mail addresses like email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org understand that such addresses attract phishers and perverts online? Do they know the negative implications on their professional life if they use it for that purpose?
We need to set healthy limits for our use of social media and the internet in our various homes to teach our children when to connect and disconnect from the digital world. It is important we remind ourselves that we own the devices, that the device does not own us and therefore we determine when to use them, how to use them to help us form healthy human relationships with ourselves, friends, neighbours and the society as a whole. Because we do not know how to manage our time online, we tend to go online when we are supposed to be working. Even when waiting for a job interview, we find time to play and chat online. You will be surprised by how much your small screen controls your time!
Protecting and equipping our children
Digital citizenship is important to the growth of every child as it crumbles the walls society builds around them, exposing them to the bigger and diverse global economy and prepares them for the outside world. However, children need to be equipped and empowered by skillful administrators, counsellors, teachers and most importantly parents who understand the workings of the virtual reality so as to guide children to look out for each other online and avoid the various dangers the internet poses.
The knowledge and understandings of cyber safety by children and young people is directly correlated to protective/risky behaviours within cyberspace.
It is obvious that there is low digital literacy when it comes to protecting private information online and on social network sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, therefore understanding the online behaviours of children and young people will enable us assess and manage their risk online.
As children develop, we need to also recognize the risks or understand the possible impacts of the decisions they make online. This is the most important thing to consider and address before we introduce our children to the world of ICT.