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Can Good Digital Citizenship be Taught?

Last month something tragic happened: An 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after discovering that his roommate had hidden a Web cam in their dorm room and used it to broadcast a homosexual encounter Clementi had.

Yesterday I heard a report on NPR's All Things Considered titled "Schools urged to teach youth digital citizenship." The piece covered how "researchers who study youth and the Internet say schools need to do a better job of teaching kids the basics of digital citizenship."

The proposition was that the Clementi case is an example of a large-scale social problem: People who are bad digital citizens. This problem, the "researchers" argue is growing and, as of July this year, 30 states had enacted electronic harassment laws and five had laws specifically against cyberbullying.

The NPR report included several people with insights and opinions on the issues involved, including John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Palfrey commented, "We need education; we need mentoring; we need parenting. We need to have good law enforcement … We need to have social workers figure out how to reach out in cyberspace, as well as in real space."

Palfrey is one of the more realistic thinkers on this topic. Rather than arguing that behavior issues in the online world should be treated separately from those in the real world, he contends that additional cyberbullying laws aren't going to change what is at the core of the problem: Simple, everyday bad behavior.

That's not to say that digital citizenry, the notion that the Internet is a parallel to the real world where your engagement and membership come with certain ethical, moral and legal obligations, isn't relevant, but rather that the issue is about people and not technology.

The problem here lies in part with the older generations that don't know and don't want to know much about the online world. The very idea of what constitutes culture is transforming rapidly around them and they aren't paying attention. They don't get it. Many of them laugh and dismiss Facebook and Twitter as trivial, pop culture phenomena, yet that's exactly what's redefining the social landscape. It's like every teen has magically acquired a high-powered motorbike and is racing around with wild abandon while the older generations think they're out riding their 100cc scooters.

What technology does is to accelerate, expand and magnify the way we do things, whether it's how we get about or how we communicate. The Clementi case illustrates this perfectly: It's bad enough for your private business to be exposed to a few people on a videotape, but it's quite another thing when it's available for anyone, anywhere to see.

But as was pointed out earlier, what technology doesn't do is to cause people to behave badly in the first place. I'm all for educating children and young adults about how they should behave online, but that has to be done in the context of the bigger picture, as Palfrey argued, of how to behave responsibly and ethically in the real world. That is not really a job for schools to undertake – just teaching the three "Rs" appears to be more than enough of a challenge.

Here's what I'm wondering: Is it the case that our attempts (or lack of them) at teaching good behavior in the real world are so inherently poor that teaching digital citizenship is bound to fail or at best have little impact? Could it be that digital culture is a force unto itself and, because it changes so quickly, we have no way to guide its evolution? What do you think?

Gibbs tries to behave in Ventura, Calif. Your plans to backspin@gibbs.com.

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