Young and digital: Responsible citizen or babe in the (technology) woods?

Digital citizenship sounds like a weighty topic. Perhaps too weighty for the youngest children. Is it even relevant to very young children and if so, what does it mean for their families, educators and carers? This is one of the issues that surfaced during the Early Childhood Australia conference keynote and workshops by Dr Chip Donohue when he called for a rethink of our roles in the digital age.

What are we doing about being an informed and responsible digital citizen in our own lives? How are we providing leadership for the young children in our homes, early learning settings, in our neighbourhoods and communities? These questions seem particularly relevant as ECA began discussions with Dr Donohue and others in the early childhood sector about possible guidance on digital technology use (see more below). It’s also relevant in the week declared Digital Citizenship week by US-based not for profit organisation, Commonsense media (16 to 22 October). It is a chance to reflect on our roles as parents, educators and carers of young children in Australia.

Many existing resources about belonging and being in a digital world are aimed at primary school and high school children. So it can be easy to think digital citizenship is not relevant before the school years. Yet as Dr Chip Donohue told the ECA national conference in his keynote address, swipe and touch technology is the game-changer. Touch and swipe on small connected devices in most homes and settings mean that digital technology is now accessible to even the youngest children. They observe others using digital technology all around them every day. Many children participate in the digital world from an early age, using devices with parents, siblings, carers and educators. Some have a digital profile from birth (or before) through photographs, ultrasounds and anecdotes posted online.;

Dr Donohue’s keynote also reminded us that families are the first role models for children and that educators are the media mentors for families. All of us—whether at home or in early childhood settings, whether parents, grandparents, siblings, carers or educators—convey to young children, values and attitudes through everything we do. This includes conveying values and attitudes through our digital interactions.

This means that digital citizenship begins, as with so many other areas of the young child’s development, with unintentional and intentional messages. To begin well requires intentionality, adult guidance, a sense of curiosity and fun, protection from inappropriate material and the graduated introduction of age appropriate skills.

Families and early childhood professionals can communicate respect for others and positive engagement through their digital technology behaviours. They also protect children and support them to develop self-regulation in their digital interactions. Young children can learn the skills of a considerate, responsible digital citizen in the same way that we support them to learn courtesy, table manners at meal times and consideration for others in the playground.

The Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner says digital citizenship is ‘about confident and positive engagement with digital technology.’ The Office’s cybersmart site provides resources and information for families and educators. The Office identifies three principles to begin practising digital citizenship:

  • engage positively
  • know your online world and
  • choose consciously.

What do you think of these principles? Do you think they are a good place to begin reflecting on your own experiences and behaviours? What does it mean for the early childhood settings you create?

Read more about digital citizenship at ECA’s Digital Business Kit: Getting up to speed (e.g. start with Module 1 Everyone’s business or Module 2 Digital tools as education tools) or try Australia’s Cybersmart site at the Office of the Children’s e-safety Commissioner. In the USA Commonsense Media, provides online resources and information so that children can ‘thrive in a world of media and technology’.

Through the Early Childhood Australia (ECA) Digital Policy Group, ECA is working with the Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner and family, early childhood, parenting and technology experts and researchers to consult with the early childhood sector on a guidance framework for digital technology use and young children. See more about developing a Statement at Early Childhood Australia.  

Clare McHugh

Clare McHugh is Early Childhood Australia's (ECA) Strategic Communications Executive, working on projects that support ECA’s reputation as a trusted voice for young children, their families, educators and carers. Clare has been part of ECA's Learning Hub Team, managed ECA's Start Early. Respectful relationships for life project and ECA digital initiatives including the federally funded Digital Business Kit and Live Wires. Clare has been thinking and writing about children, family and social policy for a number of years, including for the Commonwealth Child Care Advisory Council and the Australian government.

One thought on “Young and digital: Responsible citizen or babe in the (technology) woods?”

    Denise Rundle says:

    Perhaps something we can teach families about digital citizenship is for them to priorities their interactions with their children over the use of their mobile devices. What would you think of a sign that said “Out of courtesy to all patrons, please put your phone on silent before you enter the service to collect your child/ren.” How many times have you seen children patiently waiting until the parent/family member is finished with the most important thing in the whole world – the mobile phone. No wonder babies are grabbing these devices as soon as they can.

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