Educating Teens in Digital Citizenship

I’ll start with a contentious claim: we do not live in a democracy. Our members of parliament are, indeed, democratically elected. However, the checks and balances in place to ensure they represent our interests consist almost entirely of an election every three years. That’s all. ‘Your vote is your voice’, or so it goes. Occasionally, very occasionally, the behaviour of a MP might be so bad a scandal erupts and public pressure leads to their exit from politics (as it did for Aaron Gilmore last year). Alternatively, a referendum may be held – but referenda are not binding (in New Zealand, at least). All in all, our democratic representatives are kept legitimate by a once-every-three-years ticking of boxes.

It’s no surprise, then, to see Russell Brand’s 2013 interview with Jeremy Paxman (on the fallacy of Western democracy) receive an overwhelmingly positive response. Brand’s interview was refreshing because it challenged the popular idea that political apathy rests with the ‘lazy’ and ‘disengaged’ citizens. Brand argues that non-voters aren’t lazy, or even necessarily disengaged, but disillusioned by a political process that inadequately represents their interests. If the selection of political parties and candidates doesn’t reflect your values or offer you help out of your difficult position, or you can’t trust that they will continue to do so for the three years they remain in parliament, then why vote at all?


It is here that my pet peeve with civic education rears its head. As I’ve said, there are very few ‘legitimate’, direct platforms in which to express ourselves as citizens. Perhaps only one ‘official’ platform exists – voting. And yet, the civic education of children and teenagers discourages the exploration of other platforms. The literature on how educators ought to teach kids and teenagers to use the Internet is particularly uninspiring in this regard.

I’ve seen a growing number of ‘photo campaigns’ on Twitter where teachers urge other people to ‘Retweet’ a photo to their followers. This exercise is designed to show students how quickly words and images can be circulated on the Internet. The underlying message is this: if kids are going to use the Internet, they must do so with extraordinary caution.


Initially, I had a positive response to the Twitter photo campaigns. I think they provide useful lessons for primary school-aged children who are vulnerable online. However, I soon learned that high school students, with the maturity and mental faculty to start developing their political identities, are taught the same lessons. Researching some teaching material for a university assignment, I found it was quite common for educators to err on the side of extreme caution, even with teenage students.

Some of these very cautious lessons for students include:

  • Prevent ‘flame wars’: discussions that ‘start small and build’ are potentially damaging to friendships.
  • Ignore trolls: responding to trolls with ‘argument, anger or a counter attack’ is ‘just what the trolls wants’.
  • Be polite and kind to everyone: ‘Benefitting everyone is the goal of digital citizenship.’

The message of embracing civility is equated only to prevention of ‘hurtful digital communication’. This teaching material fails to encourage students to use the Internet to develop their political identities, improve their debating skills, and test out their arguments. All kinds of conflict are mistakenly painted with the same broad brush in this discourse. Getting into a heated Facebook argument about sexism or racism, for example, is not the same thing as cyberbullying, and should not be viewed as such by teachers, parents, or caregivers. Not all anger is irrational or unjustified.


As a teenager, I spent a lot of time engaging with trolls on the comments section of Youtube videos. This may sound futile – it often felt it – but, in retrospect, I think it was a productive use of time. At the age of 15, I was learning how to best argue against racism, sexism, and homophobia. I also had no qualms (and still don’t) about getting into arguments with friends and schoolmates on Facebook. The time spent engaging in these activities as a teenager helped me develop my understanding of politics, reflect on many of my own misguided opinions, and ready me for becoming a voting adult.

I don’t think the Internet is the saving grace of democracy – to believe so would be to buy into the fallacy that the Internet is currently a free space – but if we want to encourage the next generation to challenge the status quo rather than passively accept it, allowing them to be angry online might be a good place to start.

The three lessons mentioned in bullet points were found in this teaching literature:

Ribble, Mike. Digital Citizenship in Schools. Washington: International Society for Technology in Education, 2011. Print.

Willard, Nancy. Cybersafety: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility. California: Corwin, 2012. Print.

Link to ‘BBC Newsnight’ Jeremy Paxman interview with Russell Brand:

by Alex Edney-Browne

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