How public libraries can encourage good digital citizenship

2023-07-24
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For some, the notion of turning to the local public library for guidance on navigating the online world might seem counterintuitive. For many others, however, the library is not just a place to check out books — it's their portal to the wider world.

This is especially true of libraries in rural areas, where the neighbourhood branch might be the only place in town with reliable WiFi. One of the vital roles that libraries play is in bridging the “digital divide”, which refers to the gap between those who have access to technology (including broadband internet connectivity) and those who do not.

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A digital divide

According to data from Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of Americans do not have high-speed internet access, with those in rural communities and low-income households being disproportionately affected.

The digital divide is even more stark at a global level. In 2021, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed warned the UN General Assembly, “As the world becomes more digitally dependent, it threatens to exclude those that remain disconnected. Almost half the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, the majority of them women, and most in developing countries, are still offline.”

Public libraries can provide access to the digital world, but just as crucially, librarians are well-positioned to teach digital citizenship skills to their patrons.

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What is digital citizenship?

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What do we mean when we talk about "digital citizenship"? MediaSmarts (Canada's Centre for Digital Media Literacy) defines it in this succinct way:

Digital citizenship is the ability to navigate our digital environments in a way that's safe and responsible and to actively and respectfully engage in these spaces. 

The Council of Europe has a somewhat more expansive definition of digital citizenship, adding that citizens today inhabit a world that has become "a complex entanglement of physical reality, technologies, digital media and social networks" that presents us with new challenges and opportunities.

Digital citizens are active participants

In this context, digital citizenship refers to "the capacity to participate actively, continuously and responsibly in communities (local, national, global, online and offline) at all levels (political, economic, social, cultural and intercultural)":

Digital citizenship, therefore, encompasses:

  • competent and positive engagement with digital technologies (creating, working, sharing, socialising, investigating, playing, communicating and learning);

  • participating actively and responsibly (values, attitudes, skills, knowledge) in communities (local, national, global) at all levels (political, economic, social, cultural and intercultural);

  • being involved in a double process of lifelong learning (in formal, informal, non-formal settings); and continuously defending human dignity.

The core tenets of digital citizenship

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Here are a few of the core tenets of informed and responsible digital citizenship, along with some of the ways librarians can instill these values in their patrons.

Cyberbullying prevention and inappropriate content

Take a stand against cyberbullying and harassment. Encourage library users to report any inappropriate online behavior they witness, and offer support to those who may be affected.

People of all ages can become victims of cyberbullies, but children are particularly vulnerable.

As we noted in a previous blog post on ways that librarians can support internet safety for their young patrons, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) conducted a survey of public and school librarians on Safer Internet Day, releasing the results earlier this year in a report titled "Creating and Maintaining a Safer Online World for Children and Young Adults in Libraries".

Restricting access to content

In addition to the risk of cyberbullying, one of the dangers young people face online is, as the World Economic Forum has identified, exposure to inappropriate materials — particularly sexual content, violent content, hate speech, self-harm content and suicide content.

Just over half (53%) of respondents to the IFLA survey reported that their libraries "restrict access to certain content for young people by employing filters" on library computers; most school librarians reported filtering in their schools and some public librarians reported filtering for all users.

Filtering is not enough

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Simply filtering out potentially objectionable content is not enough to ensure children's safety, however. Having an internet safety policy in place is important, and education is a key way to prepare students for the online world.

The IFLA report recommends that schools and libraries provide internet safety lessons that cover a range of relevant topics, including rules for appropriate online behavior, cyberbullying awareness, and how to avoid falling victim to identity theft and fraud:

We cannot rely solely on filtering as a means of protection, but rather must also teach kids how to protect themselves. This can be supported with a greater focus on educating and training young people (and their families) to be savvy about safe internet practices, to develop information literacy skills to differentiate between "authentic" and "fake" information and protect themselves from online predators.

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Online etiquette

Foster responsible digital citizenship by encouraging patrons to follow appropriate online etiquette and guidelines on platforms, forums, social media and other online communities. To act responsibly online means to avoid trolling, flaming or engaging in harmful behaviors.

Teach students and other library users to maintain a positive online presence and treat others in the digital realm as they would in person. Encourage them to show empathy and kindness in their interactions with others, regardless of background, beliefs or opinions.

Privacy and security

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Let patrons know how to protect their personal information and respect the privacy of others. Encourage them to use strong passwords, be cautious about sharing sensitive data, and be mindful of the private details they post online. (To learn more about data privacy, see our recent blog post on why libraries need to prioritize safeguarding patron information.)

Be aware, also, that there is a distinct generation gap when it comes to digital literacy. Members of older generations tend to be at the most risk of being targeted in online scams.

If they lack the techniques necessary to spot misinformation online, as McAfee points out, “Older adults can easily fall prey to scams, conspiracies, hoaxes, and false news stories online.” McAfee cites a 2019 study out of Princeton and NYU, which found that, prior to the 2016 election, Americans over 65 were seven times more likely than those under 29 to post articles from fake news domains.

Teaching digital citizenship to older adults

Many libraries already offer free lessons designed to teach computer skills to older adult learners in the community. Extending this to include training in online safety can be an effective means of combating cybercriminals while promoting the values of good digital citizenship.

Librarians can give their older users a solid grounding in the basics of navigating the digital world, and then support them as they deepen their knowledge of digital citizenship on their own by exploring interactive web-based programs such the Poynter Institute’s self-paced MediaWise for Seniors.

Intellectual property and copyright

We provided a more in-depth overview of this topic in a recent blog post titled "Eight key things librarians need to know about copyright law".

As we noted in that article, licensing and subscription agreements can pose several challenges for library professionals. Many libraries obtain licenses to provide their patrons with access to digital content such as eBooks, journals and databases, but the license agreements made with publishers and content providers can be complex and perplexing.

In order to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions, librarians need to be well-versed in the usage restrictions of each agreement, such as the number of simultaneous users it allows, and limitations on downloading or printing.

From an end-user perspective, it is important that library staff and patrons alike respect the rights of content creators. Don't use or share copyrighted material without permission unless it falls under fair use or creative commons licenses. This is part of responsible digital citizenship, to be sure, but it's also a way to steer clear of any legal hot water.

Critical thinking and information literacy

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Media and information literacy is a topic that we at PressReader are very passionate about, but what exactly does it mean? The US-based Center for Media Literacy offers this concise but thorough definition: 

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

Shaping good digital citizens

Libraries can offer workshops designed to help patrons develop critical thinking skills that empower them to understand and make sense of the messages they read, hear and see, in the online world and beyond. Wherever they get their information — be it in the morning paper, via social media or on an app such as PressReader — this will help them determine its veracity and consider a story from more than one angle.  

These are essential skills in a functioning, democratic society. That’s because they support strong institutions, enable societies to hold those in power accountable, and help to reduce inequalities.

By introducing them to tools like PressReader, librarians can open patrons’ eyes to the wide range of thoughts, ideas and perspectives to be found in journalistic content.  

This will empower them to critically evaluate information and make smart choices about the media they consume, setting them on the path towards aware and engaged digital citizenship.

How is your library helping members navigate the digital world? Send us an email and let us know what you're doing to teach digital citizenship skills. Plus, learn more about how we support libraries in their various initiatives.

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