Digital citizenship can be compared to the fundamental lessons children learn in the society they grow up in -- from the acceptable modes of behaviour and politeness to what is legal and what is not.
In the West, we teach our children not to talk to strangers, to not punch our siblings and in Britain, you never get in the front seat with a taxi driver -- but how far are we pressing the core values of what it means to be a 'citizen' in the digital world, where some activities contain similar elements of risk?
It is important for young children to learn, now, just what is acceptable online and what is not. Teaching children certain values when they are younger may help them avoid mistakes later on; when it could result in the loss of a job or place in education.
Digital profiles and physical identities are not necessarily considered separate any longer. Go to a bar in the UK and someone may ask for your Facebook link instead of your number; tweeted messages represent corporations even if they are written by third-party companies, and Gen-Y often prefer to text or email instead of calling a contact.
In a recent Digital Media IX survey (.pdf) comprising of 2,000 college students, the defacto social network of choice was unsurprisingly Facebook, whereas YouTube and Twitter were also very popular. LinkedIn became more important for those soon to leave education, and more than one-third of students used apps on mobile devices.
Whether for good or ill, as what defines us as people warps, it is necessary to educate the next generation in order to compensate. What may be acceptable to your friend in class may not impress the school when it is discovered on Twitter, and the rant you wrote on Facebook may just antagonize your father to destroy your laptop in retribution.
Safety is one of the key concerns that parents have demonstrated in relation to their children being on social networking sites. Online, a split-second poorly made choice can have long-term, detrimental consequences -- in the same manner as the physical world.
Whether it is an impressionable young girl who wants to become a model targeted by men on MySpace, or young children being groomed online for sex, the risk can be compared to a child getting into a stranger's car. The threat of one scenario is immediately physical, one is not -- but both are dangerous.
Digital footprints are being formed often at a young age. Some parents begin the chain even before a child is born -- by posting photos of their pregnancy scans on sites like Facebook. If you search the network in question, a plethora of baby profiles created by proud mums emerge.
Photos are uploaded, comments are made, juvenile bickering spills from the playground to be immortalized in text online. Even if such evidence is deleted, the ripples of impact never truly go away. A child may give away a phone number or address to someone masquerading online as someone else, or they may find themselves hauled in front of a principal for immature messages left against this week's unpopular classmate.
If teenagers, in the throes of hormone-driven angst, decide to begin their digital profiling in this manner, by the time jobs and careers choice looms on the horizon, they may have already sealed their fate through a light of negativity. More employers than ever are researching candidates online, and even higher education facilities are beginning to join the trend.
The wealth of information one can glean from an individual with a digital footprint is extreme -- and says far more than a resume ever could.
Furthermore, young people need to understand not only what is appropriate in the digital public domain, but how to effectively communicate within the limited formats the Internet offers. They need to know that emails are not necessarily private, and as conversational tones & context can often be lost through text-based communication, appropriate wording is crucial.
Using capitals to demonstrate a point will not impress a business colleague, and jokes that may raise a laugh in the pub may not be received well over emails -- and could even get you fired. These are mistakes that many people make, from the general public to public figures including politicians -- believing that the social media world respects context in the same manner that the physical world can.
It simply isn't true.
As digital networks become more entrenched, appropriateness is necessary to teach in order to protect individuals and their future prospects.
In the same breath, we are not exactly giving young people the best models to base their online behaviour on. Trolling is rampant, and for some reason, some believe that offending people online is acceptable -- even though they would not do the same if they met the person in question in a business meeting or bar.
What can be done to protect children in a rapidly-digitizing world?
- Discuss personal security: Explain what information is safe to release online, and what is not -- such as phone numbers or locations.
- Learn about and explain about privacy online: Spending a moment exploring social networking privacy settings means you can assist any of your children present on them -- and keep the settings high.
- Open channels of communication: Being open and honest may help children feel secure coming to you if they find themselves in trouble online.
- Lightly monitor them if necessary: Especially for younger children, keeping an eye on their activity means you may be able to stop trouble before it escalates;
- Set rules for Internet use, and follow through on consequences if they are broken.
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