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Raising digital learners – digital citizenship and our children

*Author’s note: I’ve been in the IT industry for over 20 years and have created a variety of web applications. While there are many positives to our increasingly online lifestyle, I am also hyper-aware of its negatives. Despite my IT expertise, I had no idea how best to guide my young digital citizens. I want to share with you my ongoing research. I have found this process humbling, reassuring and encouraging – I hope you do too. Parents, we got this!!

Digital technology and social media are here to stay. As parents, we may have chosen to opt-out or limit our social media presence. However, our children won't have this option. Nowadays, you complete job applications, university applications, and even schoolwork online. Whether we, as parents, have embraced social media or look upon it in disdain, we still have to guide our children along their digital journey as digital citizens. The good news is that this is not as complicated as it may sound and can be a rewarding experience for all involved.

Those of us that grew up before the onslaught of digital media had the luxury of finding and defining ourselves without fear and worry that our blunders and poor decisions would haunt us online, available to everyone via a simple Google search. I'm sure many of us are thankful smartphones were not around during our teenage years.

Digital citizens and digital footprints

Today, our children are becoming digital citizens at a young age, younger than you may think. Once your child has an online presence, they have a digital footprint that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Their digital footprint consists of all social media linked to them, both items they have shared and those posted by others. It also contains information about how they navigate the internet when they use a personal account. It's highly probable that future employers, property managers, university entrance personnel, and others will view your child's digital footprint at some point. Our goal as parents is to empower our children to make confident, productive choices that create a positive digital footprint.

Guiding our children on their digital journey may sound scary and disconcerting, especially for those of us that did not grow up with digital technology and social media or do not use them often. The online world may seem to be mysterious and alien. Don't fret! The same values that guide your parenting offline are the same ones you apply to your online parenting style.

What are family values? Family values are cultural or traditional values that guide the family's beliefs, attitudes, roles and structure. This set of principles is unique to each family. As a child, we learn our family values by interacting with members of our family and observing how our family interacts with society. Examples of family values include respect, empathy, tolerance, honesty, responsibility, resilience, openness to new experiences, collaboration, recognition, learning, independence, sportsmanship, belonging and so on. Your family values are not static and change often based on your family circumstances.

Influencers and Our Children

When we lived in Japan, we ran a small Japanese lodge in a cosy ski town. It was there that I met my first social media influencer – someone who uses social media to shape people's perceptions of products, ideas, politics, travel destinations, social media use and so on. What I didn’t realise at that time was that I already knew a VIP influencer, and this influencer had considerably more impact on my children than I realised!

Do you know or follow any influencers? If you are a parent, then you already know an incredibly important influencer. Can you guess who? Take a look in the mirror! Your child pays attention to how you interact on social media – more than you may realise.

Some of you may be breathing a sigh of relief right now because you don’t think you use social media. Sorry, even if you don’t use Facebook or Instagram, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are not partaking in some form of social media. Social media consists of any interactive medium such as a device, app or website, that uses web platforms to create, exchange and share text, image, video and audio files to allow users to interact with one another. Examples include stand-alone apps like Facebook and TikTok or chat features on games like Fortnite. Also included are chat apps like WhatsApp and modern SMS texting technology. Chances are you use some form of social media.

Now that we know we influence our children and that we do use social media, how can we use this information to empower our children to become responsible, productive digital citizens with a positive digital footprint?

The BEST parenting skills offline and on

To answer this, let’s first look at a few skills we already promote offline:

  • Boundary creation

  • Effective and open communication

  • Self-confidence

  • The family values

For example, we establish boundaries by teaching our children not to run into a busy street. We promote family values when we encourage our children to say please and thank you, and so on. Give yourself a moment to reflect on these BEST skills. How do you promote them as a parent? Here are a few examples from friends and family to consider:

  • “I try to have topical conversations with the children on our morning school run.”

  • “I remind my daughter to look at the person she is conversing with and to articulate clearly.”

  • “I try to teach my son to say ‘pardon’, or ‘excuse me’, when he needs someone to repeat what they have said.”

  • “My children must complete after school chores before they play with the neighbour children.”

How do you begin to apply these BEST skills to your online parenting strategies? First, you can review your relationship with digital devices and how you interact with social media. Then you need to ask yourself a tough question that you must answer honestly: Am I leading by example? I’ve recently asked myself this exact question and found the review process quite humbling. I was very aware of the pitfalls to look out for because of my IT experience, but my knowledge did not protect me from creating negative habits that I certainly didn’t want to pass on to my children. I’ve made mistakes, and I will inevitably make several more.

We are the first generation of parents that are raising digital citizens, and we will make mistakes, but we must forgive ourselves. Think of it as good practice for when our kids make mistakes – and they will.

Over the next several articles, we will explore how family values guide your family's use of social media and digital technology. We will first take a deeper look at how we can apply our BEST skills to our online parenting strategy. Next, we will review how specific values encourage productive, positive and safe online behaviour. Finally, we will take a look at practical examples that will help us guide our digital citizens. By the time you finish this series, you will have the confidence to empower your children to become responsible, productive digital citizens who cultivate a positive digital footprint. You can get a head start now by making a list of your family values.

If you need help defining your values or want to learn more about your digital footprint, there are many tools online to help you. Here are a few excellent resources that illustrate how your digital footprint is generated and potential issues to keep in mind:

Here are a couple of fabulous New Zealand resources to bookmark:

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