How Proper Digital Participation Can Make Children Better Citizens

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Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

In the year of the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is undeniable that many of the connected youth of today, particularly from developed countries, wholly embrace online interactions and report being constantly on social and content platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. Interacting, sharing, and collaborating in online communities are part of the daily lives of an estimated 4.1 billion of us who are using the Internet in 2019. Digital devices and the Internet allow us to overcome geographical distances and time differences to connect with the diversity of fellow global citizens from different parts of the world.

Particularly for children and youth, communities like online forums and Facebook groups serve as an avenue to build their offline engagement and communication skills. The connection of online communication and offline interaction completes what Caroline Haythornthwaite and Lori Kendall refer to as a “support mechanism for communities.” Given that research indicates there is a positive relationship between social media use and participation in civic and political activities, it would be remiss for educators to ignore the potential to leverage children’s embrace of online communications and social networking to build communication, collaboration, and civic engagement skills that are critical in the offline world.

Youth Leveraging Technology for the Climate Emergency

The recurring climate protests that started in August 2018 are a testament to the internet’s power to bring communities together. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg prompted the movement by protesting against the lack of action and solution on climate issues. She protested in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks, all while posting about it on various social media platforms. Eventually, the protest caught the attention of many internet users and inspired the beginning of the #FridaysForFuture movement.

Members of the youth from all over the world have soon begun to protest in their communities. This movement consisting of millions of people in an estimated 185 countries has united different cultures and time zones – virtually coming together with one goal. The movement also developed the hashtags #FridaysForFuture and #ClimateStrike which prompted further discussions and awareness to both adults and the youth.

Photo by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

The simple act of posting and sharing online can already reach millions of internet users, thus reflecting how powerful digital participation can be. Updates on Thunberg’s social media posts and the virality of relevant hashtags have activated movements and protests all over the world.

Applying the Competencies of Digital Participation and Agency

The youth-led movement to take action to solve the climate crisis shows how the digital world can enable the powerful expression of children’s voices and engage communities on a global scale. Digital technologies offer much potential for children to realize their social responsibility. According to DKAP, Digital Participation and Agency “addresses sharing information with others, cooperating and participating in ICT-based activity for positive local and global outcomes, and netiquette-based interaction.” The domain includes the following core competencies: interacting, sharing and collaborating, civic engagement, and netiquette.

The hashtags used to spread information and raise awareness about the movement exhibit how online users utilize technology to interact, share, and collaborate with many other likeminded citizens from different parts of the world for a common purpose. Building on their online interactions, the youth then demonstrated civic engagement by acting on the issues and engaging in community activism.

Quality and equitable access to ICT

Unfortunately, the internet is not accessible to everyone. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), one of the challenges for online civil participation is unequal internet access as citizens of developing countries have limited connection. A 2017 study by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that only 42.9% of households in developing countries have internet access, while least developed countries only have 14.7%. These are significantly low percentages compared to that of developed countries, which is at 84.4%.

In addition to this, women, the elderly, and people with lower incomes also use the internet less. This unequal access to the internet is already well-known as the “digital divide” and may lead to inequalities in digital participation, such as reduced representation in relevant online communities that would have allowed them to voice their perspectives.

DKAP found that the factors which correspond to increased Digital Participation and Agency scores include children’s experience in developing a website or application, use of digital devices for longer periods, and the number of digital devices accessible at school. These findings highlight how equitable access to ICT can empower students to participate in meaningful and important causes through technology. To learn more about DKAP’s findings, download the full report here

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