Beyond Borders: Exploring Digital Citizenship

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“You are spending too much time online” has been a fairly common chant most parents have said to their kids. Until recently.

The circumstances of the pandemic have invalidated this routine argument, as most people have turned into full-time netizens. With a major chunk of our lives turning online, there is an immediate need to discuss boundaries, safety, rights, and responsibilities – the impacts of  ‘digital citizenship’ that is.

What is Digital Citizenship

The word citizen carries many connotations. When you are a citizen (as opposed to an inhabitant or a refugee), it is your legal right to belong. You have access to resources and other benefits and, at the same time, you have a few fundamental responsibilities as dictated by the constitution. You don’t get to enjoy the rights without signing up for the responsibilities too. It is all about checks and balances.

It is this same idea that social scientists and philosophers are working to transfigure for the digital world too. in her book Digital Citizenship: The Internet, Society and Participation, Karen Mossberger defines digital citizens as those “who use the internet regularly and effectively.” Digital citizenship, according to Mossberger, is “appropriate and responsible behaviour while using technology.”

Digital Citizenship includes…
1. Digital Literacy

When you are faced with myriad choices, evaluating and selecting becomes an arduous process. It is a privilege, no doubt, but it does not make it any less difficult. This is a conundrum most netizens face. The internet is filled with humongous amounts of data. Your pre-existing knowledge, your practices of evaluation and verification are indispensable in order to segregate authentic data from the tons of spam or malware that is available online. Accessing, analysing, and using information from online sources in an ethical and sustainable way contribute to your digital literacy.

It is not only about knowing what to do. Ethics are a major part of all discussions involving digital literacy, and therefore, digital citizenship. Respect rules of copyright and intellectual property. For all the learners out there, with the plethora of sites that practically do your assignments for you, you need to ask yourself, “what is my contribution?” It accounts for all the differences between passive and active learning. When you are a passive learner, you simply take in existing information and put it in some corner of your brain. However, an active learner also develops critical thinking and analytical skills as she/he evaluates and contributes to the existing body of knowledge. In short, evaluate your sources, make the work your own, and do not plagiarise.

We know that face-to-face communication and virtual communication are quite distinct. A large part of digital literacy also includes your learning of how to communicate effectively online. Succinct phrases, respectful language, and limiting to relevant discussions are essential attributes to possess.

2. Netiquette

A blend of internet and etiquette, netiquette is a crucial aspect of digital citizenship. It is the acknowledgment of others’ rights to be in the same virtual space that you are in and remembering the human behind all the tech. Keep telling yourself, ‘it doesn’t hurt to be polite,’. You can be assertive, speak up for yourself, and make your case while being respectful of others. While the ideas seem fairly obvious and prescriptive, they need to be spoken about, considering the number of trolls and abusive behaviour that has wound its way into our virtual lives. Do check out our article on netiquette for a list of basic internet etiquette norms we all need to follow.

3. Online Safety

Safe online practices are also an integral part of digital citizenship. While it is impossible to list all such practices comprehensively, for it changes with each scenario, let us talk about it at its basics. Online safety boils down to the fundamental idea of understanding and respecting privacy. And it is a two-way street.

First, be extremely sure of what you are sharing online. Nothing that goes into the virtual world is 100% private. While it is not meant to alarm you, it is required to be mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario. It is always better to pause and think before you share personal information online.

Second, as careful as you are about your privacy, return the favour. The internet is somebody else’s space as much as it is yours. Since social media is omnipresent these days, the gap between one’s professional and personal online selves is becoming smaller. All information is available at the click of a button. However, it is your responsibility, all of ours, in fact, to use our discretion and maintain boundaries between the private and the public. It is unethical and unprofessional to bring up personal preferences or experiences in a professional setup, even if you have access to all such data.

Always stand up against cyberbullying. It is a crime and is known to cause deep emotional harm. Online anonymity is a smokescreen. Every action of your online leaves a digital footprint and can be traced. Threats, defamation, or instances of harassment can be traced back to the perpetrator. Never respond to bullies and talk to a trusted friend. Legal and psychological recourse is also available against cyberbullying.

Exploring Global Citizenship

If you find yourself relating to all that has been stated above, remind yourself that it is a privilege. Digital citizenship is not the norm, even though it feels like one. There are millions across the globe, especially from developing nations, who are struggling to bridge the digital gap. Accessing required tech or having a stable internet connection is a luxury in many parts of the world. Despite these huge differences, as we find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum, let us never forget our ethical responsibility to make the internet a safe space for everyone.

The privileges, the rights are there for us. Being a digital citizen goes beyond geographical barriers that open up the entire world to us. We belong to the world and it is our oyster. Sitting in Zimbabwe, you have the option of attending a lecture at Stanford. Our choices have increased exponentially. As we explore and appreciate that privilege, it also means that we take on a larger responsibility: for humanity as a whole. We take it upon ourselves to be ethical and empathetic. We acknowledge that every voice deserves to be heard. We always remember the human behind the screens. We strive towards making the virtual world safer.

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