Good Digital Parenting
Blog | April 7, 2014

Digital Citizenship: A Modern Parent’s Guide to Raising CyberEthical Kids

Privacy Expert

If it isn't blindingly obvious already, our kids are growing up in a digital and increasingly wireless world. There are now more mobile devices in the world than there are people (although they are not, obviously, evenly distributed), and various large corporations are exploring technologies to extend Internet access around the globe. The World Wide Web, which first surged in popularity about the time my oldest son was born (1993), has since woven itself into nearly every aspect of the world's economy and social fabric. Digital competency and cyberskills of varying types are already essential requirements for most jobs, and that trend is rapidly accelerating. The profound technological changes of the last thirty years are not only re-shaping our world, they are presenting parents with yet another child-rearing challenge: how to prepare our children to be effective digital citizens.

I have been writing about the impact of technology on society for more than twenty years, and for the last half-decade, I've been focusing on the particular challenges posed to our children. In my 2011 book, "Cybertraps for the Young," I explored the various legal risks that children face from the use and misuse of electronic devices. More recently, I've been working on a sequel called "Cybertraps for Educators," which examines similar concerns in the classroom.

All new technologies, to one degree or another, go through what I call Lane's Five Stages of Technological Adoption: I. Discovery or Invention; II. Nerdish Adulation; III. Parental/Political Panic; IV. Commercialization; and V. Curriculum Integration. Most of the stages are self-explanatory, but it's worth noting that the concept of "curriculum integration" encompasses not only what we teach in the schools but also what we teach our kids at home. Whether articulated or not, most parents have an innate sense of what they would like their children to learn as they are growing up, but it takes a while before new technologies are integrated into the household curriculum.

When it comes to the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular, we are well into stage IV, and finally making the transition to stage V. More and more schools are integrating digital technology and more importantly, digital ethics, into school curricula. I also find in my conversations with parents around the country that an increasing number are thinking seriously about the challenge of raising kids in a digital world.

Educating Your Children on Becoming Good Digital Citizens

So how should you shape your home curriculum to best educate your children on becoming good digital citizens? The first step is to define your goals; presumably it is not enough that your children be technically competent (although that's important) but also that they use technology appropriately and ethically.

Many parents understandably feel tech-blocked; anxious about the changes occurring each day, they question whether they have anything relevant to say to their more tech-savvy kids. The important thing for parents to remember, however, is that there are still no apps for wisdom, experience, and ethics. The keys to raising cyberethical kids are those that have been in place for millennia: communication, education, and repetition.

The single most important component of a household ethics "curriculum" is communication. Children can't be expected to divine limits on technology use on their own (and in fact, technology is often specifically designed to encourage them to think there are no limits). Children will understandably chafe against limits, but the very act of imposing limits is part of an ethical education. It helps children to understand that there are consequences for what they do online, just as there are IRL ("in real life").

The second tool for raising good digital citizens is education, particularly about the moral standards that you observe in your home. Some parents worry that it is difficult to apply ancient religious doctrines to today's fast-paced world, and that's an understandable concern. When Moses came down off of Mt. Sinai, after all, he wasn't carrying an iPad and a Kindle Fire.

The great thing about enduring ethical principles, of course, is that the core concepts have adapted to human progress over thousands of years. With a slight tweak, for instance, the Golden Rule is eminently applicable to today's connected world: "Text unto others as you would have them text unto you." In other words, think about what you're saying, and imagine how you would feel if someone said that about you.

Lastly, as parents are all too well aware, teaching children anything requires repetition. Children rarely absorb lessons in the first go-round, particularly ones that involve limits, consequences, empathy, and compassion. It's some consolation, perhaps, that there's little wasted effort in these repetitive ethical lessons – not only will your children become better digital citizens, but the lessons will be readily applicable to their non-digital activities, however few and far between those may become.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.