Stephen Balkam is the CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) in Washington and advocate of good digital citizenship. He highlights the positive aspects of children’s digital usage, and explains why he believes fear is getting in the way of their natural capacity to be responsible, creative online citizens.  

What is ‘digital citizenship’?

I'm a big believer in the concept of digital citizenship, though it can take some explaining! I like to think about it as a pyramid with online safety, security and privacy as its base layer. Built on that foundation, you develop digital and media literacy skills, and on top of that comes the basic rights and responsibilities of being a digital citizen. We are good at demanding our rights (to free speech, assembly, religion etc) but not so good at fulfilling our responsibilities to each other online – whether that means being an upstander to a cyberbully, or reporting abusive or sexist comments, or simply deleting inappropriate content sent to us rather than passing it along. We have a long way to go to instill digital citizenship in our kids, but also in ourselves as adults. We need to model more responsible online behaviour to our students and our children.

Do you believe children are developmentally capable of being good digital citizens?

I would take the word ‘digital’ out of that question and say yes. Kids under 12 can comprehend the basic notion of what it means to be a member of a society or nation or region or province. I think any 11-year-old would know what to do if he or she saw a fire or witnessed an accident – to call the police or fire services. That's a fundamental activity of a good citizen. Apply that online and kids can quickly grasp the same concept by using a report button or telling a trusted adult if they see something inappropriate. Beyond reporting abuse, kids that age can also grasp the idea of ‘doing good’ online, and can sometimes be incredibly creative and empathic when it comes to responding to calls by charities or in response to an urgent issue or problem.

There is a lot of fear-based messaging in discussions about cyber-safety. What are the positive impacts of children interacting with the internet?

We have worked hard here at FOSI to eradicate the fear-based messaging of the past decade. We've only just emerged from a decade-long ‘techno-panic’ around online predators, which the media did its best to keep on the front pages and in the evening news. Not only do we emphasise the positive nature of the internet, we've created an initiative called A Platform for Good, which highlights all the great things kids are doing online – from standing up to cyberbullies, to raising cash for charities online, to becoming social and political activists. [These are] lively and positive examples of good digital citizenship. Kids switch off to fear messaging by clueless adults. They respond to positive pointers to ways they can use their online powers for good.

How does resilience in children feed responsible online behaviour?

We don't talk enough about resiliency. We have become so averse to risk-taking in our kids that we do them a disservice and hinder their natural, emotional development. I think dealing with adversity – either offline or online – and knowing how and where and when to seek help or assistance is crucial to help kids build a strong foundation of responsible behaviour online.   

How can schools help to educate young people in this area?

By staying calm and giving them the basic information they need to negotiate difficult situations they face every day online. It could be as simple as pointing out the privacy settings on Facebook, or how to report racist comments on YouTube, or [how to confront] a bully on Twitter. All the major social media sites have report mechanisms to deal with difficult or challenging comments or behaviours. And teachers and counsellors need to give kids the realistic hope that they can come to them when they encounter a situation that they cannot deal with alone, and to know that by doing so, the adults won’t make the situation worse.

Learn more about the Family Online Safety Institute.