What Students Want Teachers—and Facebook—to Know About Digital Citizenship

Feb 18, 2020

In some hands, social media tools are blights on society, tools for bullies and misinformation campaigns. Sometimes, they’re a canvas for artists, sources to build community, paths by which people find a higher calling.

Sanah Jivani has personally experienced both extremes of the spectrum. It was on Facebook where she found an account dedicated to guessing why Jivani—whose hair had fallen out by age 12 due to an autoimmune disease—wore a wig to school. That discovery, coupled with offline bullying, made her feel alone and ashamed.

But it was also on Facebook where in 2011 Jivani, then in ninth grade, posted a video of her removing the wig. In the video, she said that she sees beauty in everyone, while acknowledging that others’ words about her appearance had hurt her. In the comments of her video, she saw people open up about their own experiences with bullies and self-harm. Jivani had jump started a career in self-care advocacy.

“The comments made me realize I wasn’t alone,” Jivani said from a stage at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. “I was never alone.”

Sanah Jivani shared her story with Good Morning America in November.

Jivani, the founder and CEO of the Love Your Natural Self Foundation, addressed a room of K-12 students and educators from across the country as part of a two-day event on digital citizenship—the idea of applying civility and civic engagement online. Facebook and The International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, organized the event as part of their work with DigCitCommit, a campaign to promote digital citizenship. ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge.

The event featured speakers like Jivani, whose foundation offers K-12 self-care curriculum guides and spearheaded an “International Day of Self Love” event online and in schools and communities. There were other young activists, involved in causes like gun control and climate change to talk about online civic engagement. Educators and executives in education technology organizations also spoke on fostering digital citizenship at school.

Policing Policies in Headlines

Most of the event focused on the positives of social media’s role in students’ lives. Students in attendance and following live streams on YouTube and Edmodo participated in activities to encourage sharing stories about their experiences online and to develop ways to use class time to promote responsible internet use. Devoting assemblies and video projects to the topic were among the recommendations from the audience.

The event comes during a time of continued debate over how much responsibility social media networks ought to bear over what people say or share on their platforms. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has refused to moderate politicians’ speech or remove false statements that are political in nature. In January, Facebook said it will remove content with “false claims or conspiracy theories” related to the coronavirus. The company has also enlisted artificial intelligence to track hate speech on the platform.

A CNBC panel discusses moderate content policing on Facebook.

In October, Twitter outlined rules for removing political posts that violate its rules, including direct threats of violence and encouraging self-harm. Both companies have also published policies around so-called “deepfakes” of manipulated and altered media on their platforms.

These current event headlines did not come up during the event, but Facebook safety policy manager Jennifer Hanley teased at changes coming to the company’s digital literacy library, a series of online modules available to educators and students to learn about responsible production and sharing of content online. The company wants input from young people on how they like to learn, she said. “We really want to take young people’s perspectives into account.”

As adults go back and forth on what positive digital citizenship means and how it manifests, it’s important to remember that young people aren’t to blame for online misbehavior, nor do they solely shoulder the responsibility of creating a harmonious internet culture, said Tony Weaver Jr., founder and CEO of Weird Enough Productions, which produces educational comics featuring characters and curricula from cultures and people underrepresented in popular media.

Concerns that people now attribute to social media, like the spread of fake news, have existed in American life before, he said. Though he was about 5 at the time, he remembers the mass panic over the potential “Y2K” programming bug that could’ve disrupted computing systems in the year 2000, a problem that largely remained a myth.

While the internet and social media have certainly amplified the worst of human tendencies, adults also need to recognize and educate themselves on how these tools can scale student activism and creative expression in unprecedented ways.

“What we need to do is not put young people in charge of problems that society as a whole was unable to deal with before they got here,” Weaver said. “Instead what we need to do is focus on leveraging the opportunities that they have that no generation has had before.”

Tony Weaver Jr. speaks at the State of Young People Summit led by youth leaders ages 12 to 25.

Give Kids a Chance

The opportunities aren’t just for students, but educators as well, says Ai Addyson-Zhang, an education consultant who attended the event.

Addyson-Zhang says she dedicated herself to learning the various social media platforms to better connect with her students while she was a communications professor at Stockton University in New Jersey. She blogged and developed an online brand, even landing guest speakers to talk to her students about using an online presence to help with job prospects.

Her experience has led to consulting gigs and hosting a live talk series on Facebook where she talks about entrepreneurship and education. While headlines around social media platforms can focus on bad behaviors and debates over corporate policies, Addyson-Zhang says educators still have a moral imperative to introduce digital citizenship to their students and steer them to responsible use. “Technology isn’t the root of the problem,” says Addyson-Zhang. “Pedagogy is.”

Ai Addyson-Zhang praises mentors in this clip from Ambition in Motion.

From the stage, educators from Los Angeles Unified School District shared how their district’s digital citizenship strategy began in 2014 and has included panels and parent workshops to get buy-in from various stakeholders.

In a roundtable held away from the cameras that brought the young advocates face to face with leaders from ISTE, Apple’s education wing and other groups, the students implored organization leaders to reserve board positions on digital citizenship committees for young people and compensate them for their time. Jivani, of the Love Your Natural Self Foundation, said that she sometimes felt burdened with covering her own travel and lodging, which felt like “paying her dues.”

Education and technology leaders should also feel comfortable giving young volunteers small projects and budgets so that they see the impact of their work and experience responsibility. “You’ve got to get out of the way,” Weaver said.


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