On an August morning in 1991 the World Wide Web had officially been introduced into our lives. Had we any idea at the time the change that was to come? What may have seemed like a novelty at first began to attract more and more curiosity and interest as we started to see its potential. Potential became necessity and invention spawned again and again. The Internet we know today grows exponentially. We have become very aware of our need to understand this continuous rapid change and forecast parameters of safety for our most vulnerable users. Today our level of global interconnectedness is staggering, and the internet has been incorporated into many facets of human life.

We have adapted to its presence as a constant, and the idea of its absence seems nearly unimaginable to us. The Internet has allowed us to become true global citizens, both socially and as a workforce. We can now see and track our actions on an international scale; measure our impact on the global environment; we can gauge our social and moral differences and similarities; we can rally together to inspire hope and provide aid for countries dealing with hardships and tragedies. This interconnectedness allows us to see how local or individual efforts can have a global effect. Seeing the impact of the individual in the global community has shown us the great positive potential of the Internet. But, we have also seen that same impact reveal how exposed we can be to scrutiny, to manipulation, to threats to our privacy and security.

When we think about it, it makes sense to cultivate empowered individuals that are dutifully aware of their responsibility both for and with the power of the Internet for the lasting well-being of our global community. This is a hallmark of what we call the global digital citizen. How do we define the global digital citizen? Who is the ethical individual in a digital world?

Defining the Digital Citizen

A starting point for creating a new level of ethical consciousness among our global individuals is to define the characteristics of the global digital citizen. This type of person is conscientious, caring and resourceful. At the Global Digital Citizen Foundation, we see such a person as one who is characterized by the practice of five unique principles:

Personal Responsibility—This concerns how one governs themselves in such matters as finance, ethical and moral considerations, personal health and fitness, and interpersonal relationships in both the digital and the non-digital world. It’s about how we present ourselves.

Global Citizenship—This generation and future ones are now global individuals. They must strive towards an appreciation of the many values, traditions, religions, concerns, and cultures of their fellow citizens. Global citizenship is about recognizing and respecting diversity.

Digital Citizenship—Digital citizenship means showing respect and responsibility for yourself, for others, and for property. It involves setting up a proper program of digital ethics and best practices for all. Such a program focuses on safe and respectful behaviour in any online environment.

Altruistic Service—A citizenry that acts out of compassion and that recognizes an interconnectedness to others is vital. For the global citizen, this means a concern for the well-being of the people with whom we share our world, and a desire to serve others.

Environmental Stewardship—We all have only one world to live in, and our duty as global citizens is to respect and preserve it for future generations. This is all about the demonstration of common sense values and of an appreciation for the beauty and majesty that is surrounding us every day.

The Tenets of Digital Citizenship

The practice of digital citizenship has its own sub-category of rules and responsibilities for being safe and mindful of others in online domains. We call these the six tenets of digital citizenship.

1. Respect for Yourself This is all about being a virtuous citizen, and it begins with the identity you create to present yourself in digital domains. How often do we see social networking names that are suggestive and questionable, or images posted to social sites that are provocative, revealing, or unflattering? Ask yourself, “How does my profile, online name, and image portray me as a person or as a potential candidate for employment?”

A global digital citizen considers the potential outcomes of revealing personal details within online public forums. While many social networking sites do have privacy options, the basic level of access means that your most personal information could be made accessible via applications (tools created in social networks that access your profile, etc.) or from your friends, their friends, and associates.

2. Responsibility for Yourself The words and images you post online are not going to be exclusive to your intended audience. It is impossible to guarantee anonymity or privacy online. Be aware that your posts can be used by others, and sometimes in negative ways. Social networking sites, blogs, wikis, Twitter, and instant messaging services allow you to openly express your ideas and opinions, but the nature of these places is to gather an audience. That inherent swell of interest can take your posts to a larger audience very quickly. That’s the power and pervasiveness of social networking in our digital lives, and that’s why it’s so important to monitor our use of it with our own protection in mind.

At some point, many of us either have found or will find ourselves the targets of bullying and online abuse. It is crucial to know that you don’t have to try and deal with it on your own. Tell someone you trust like a friend, parent, teacher, employer, counsellor, etc. If you happen to experience abuse or threats on a particular web site, you can also report the abuse to the site moderator. Don’t respond to it. Record it for evidence. The Internet provides a great medium to meet new people and develop new friendships, but it is crucial that this is done with an awareness of the nature of the Internet itself—meaning its inherent lack of policing and security. A person’s profile is subjective and can be masking a person’s true intent and identity. Social media has huge potential for establishing new relationships, but does have a similar potential for risk.

3. Respect for Others Be aware that your words and images online have power, and in many cases are permanent once you have posted them. As responsible global digital citizens, we must always demonstrate respect for other people. A good general rule to follow is this: If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online. We know how easy it is to post a thought on a social media site, or to make and dedicate an entire blog to any subject. This makes it far too easy for anyone to create gossip and innuendo and spread negativity if they choose.

Remind yourself to stay above the fray and encourage others to post responsibly. Respect for others also applies to the sites we visit. Whether they are gossip, hate, racist, or pornographic sites, we should be discerning about where we go online. By visiting these types of sites, we inadvertently give our approval for their existence.

4. Responsibility for Others Every social networking site, instant messaging tool, chatroom, wiki, blog, and social media domain has a “Report Abuse” contact. Don’t be afraid to use it! We can protect others by reporting behaviour that is inappropriate, abusive, or unacceptable. Another example that is common to us is in email. Again, think before you send and share! Don’t forward emails that are derogatory. You can stop the chain by deleting the message instead of passing it on.

Choosing to do nothing as a person is flamed in a threaded discussion, or attacked by a troll in a chatroom, encourages the attacker and empowers them to continue. You do not have to passively contribute to this negativity. You have the ability to report abuse and to encourage respect and consideration in all discussions online. Likewise, if the conversation in a chatroom changes to have suggestive overtones, you have the power to report it.

Whether you, a friend, or even a stranger are the target, you should feel like you can do something about it. If you see someone being abused online, consider what it would feel like if you were the recipient of such abuse.

5. Respect for Property There is so much information out there, and there are so many amazing materials to share. Think of the number of people who have given their precious time and know-how to us all for free! There is also a lot of information and creativity online that is not free. The global digital citizen shows a deep respect for all intellectual property.

6. Responsibility for Property Software, literature, music, and movies take human creativity and ingenuity to create. The cost to share and benefit from that creativity exists for the purpose of supporting that industry and artist. If you do not agree with the price or the industry, there are other ways of addressing it without breaking the law. No matter what form of copy-written material you are taking, piracy is theft! Luckily, there is a large array of low-cost and free versions of things you might be interested in.

For example, Creative Commons licensing agreements have made available millions of images, media, and books that are all accessible for free. Creative Commons is a license or statement of use that encourages people to share. When you publish your own work, it is worth considering using the Creative Commons license. Under this license, you can customize the level of rights a user has to your intellectual property.

Being Global, Being Great

Being a great global digital citizen isn’t just about using your head—it’s also about using your heart. Having a responsible and ethical citizenry is essential to healthy and peaceful life in the world we all share. A global digital citizen enjoys the benefits of being in our connected world, while practicing some significant responsibilities at the same time. The global digital citizen must be aware that they share their lives online with what is now a global presence. As such, here are some guidelines for the global digital citizen’s “code of honour.”

The Global Digital Citizen Must …

… consider that they are identifiable and are creating a “digital footprint” with any online activity.

… always communicate using the appropriate language.

… serve their duty to judge what is appropriate and ethical behaviour within the laws of the land.

… choose and uphold their social responsibilities.

… always be virtuous and act with integrity in all digital and non-digital communications and interactions.

These five considerations provide an excellent foundation for anyone to build on, and are supplementary to the six tenets of digital citizenship. By instilling these values within both ourselves as well as demonstrating them and teaching them to our students and youth, we can build a safer online environment and create a better future for our planet.

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