Forget coding, we need to teach kids about digital citizenry


Asher Wolf

"Stupid posts about embarrassing incidents or regrettable comments don't just go away because children grow up," writes ...

"Stupid posts about embarrassing incidents or regrettable comments don't just go away because children grow up," writes Asher Wolf. Photo: Stocksy

Growing up online is complicated.

Social media profiles are increasingly being checked by university admissions boards, potential employers, government departments and insurance agencies. A throwaway comment made online by a child can be life-changing and almost impossible to scrub from the internet decades later.  

As advertisers, schools and government departments encourage the creation of digital identities for children, the content young people create can hang around like a malicious ghost for decades, searchable online for a lifetime to come. Stupid posts about embarrassing incidents or regrettable comments don't just go away because children grow up.

It's totally unsurprising some parents are now carefully curating social media accounts for their children - real-name accounts that act as a curriculum vitae for future jobs and university admissions, offering only the best public persona possible. 


Perhaps treating social media like a public billboard is not so much of a dumb idea, especially as status updates on Facebook are now being monitored by university admissions boards, job recruiters and health insurers. 

Case after case dispels the notion the internet is still the electronic Wild West without frontiers. Take for example that incident involving hotel worker Michael Nolan, who was sacked over racist and offensive Facebook posts - including a number of abusive Facebook comments made to Daily Life columnist Clementine Ford. Or the recent conviction of an SBS producer, who was granted a two-year good behaviour bond after his unfortunate drunken "failed satire" on Facebook was deemed a threat against police.

To quote writer and futurist Quinn Norton: "All data over time, approaches deleted or public." And for most of us, our data is damn hard to scrub from the internet.

Over recent years there's been a number of government initiatives around child safety online, most notably the creation of The Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner. Yet in a UNESCO study released in 2014, it was noted Australia's Cybersmart program was missing one particular area of development: values reinforcement, including respect and empathy.

For the most part it's assumed parents are capable of talking to their children about rights and responsibilities online. Yet parents often struggle with this responsibility. 

One of the wonderful things about sending children to school is the hope the little darlings learn things that might get overlooked at home. Things like social studies, road safety, reading and writing, and oh gosh, sex education. These wonderful lessons hopefully make kids think twice before saying awful racist things, prevent them running into traffic, help them read labels on tinned peas at the supermarket and reduce the chance of them contracting STDs.

Yet while many parents hope the education system provides the safety net for teaching screenagers how to be upstanding citizens online, it appears schools are also struggling with what digital engagement means in the classroom as well. While there's a growing number of apps being integrated into classroom education, as well as parent email lists, Facebook pages and coding classes, it appears there's often little thought given to the social component of growing up online. 

Too few schools go beyond the basics of classes on "netiquette" when it comes to helping students explore the boundaries of acceptable online digital citizenry. The focus within Australian school curriculum on digital identity and citizenry has been fuzzy to say the least.

Teaching good digital citizenry requires a joint effort between parents, schools and children. There's a need for shared conversations about values, implications of interactions, privacy and security oversight, and adult exploration of tools before implementing them both in the home and classroom.

Our kids deserve more than piecemeal lessons around how to navigate life online. Teaching consequential thinking around internet use is not only possible, but absolutely essential in today's world. 

Children shouldn't have to grow up alone online. Parents and teachers should be part of the conversation. Giving young people control over their online identities means showing them ways to chose what the world sees of them - and how to protect themselves online. It's a conversation we can't afford to avoid. 


A representative for the Children's eSafety Commissioner clarified to Daily Life that the UNESCO study only considered one Cybersmart program and that the broader suite of Cybersmart programs do teach empathy, respect and values.