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Raising Responsible Digital Citizens

According to the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC), 85% of children in Qatar aged between nine and 18 use the internet. Most of these children have been using digital devices since before they could read or write, and it’s no surprise that they are often referred to as “digital natives”.

Meanwhile many of us parents grew up in a world that seems light years away from today’s always-connected age: we used landline numbers that we had to memorise, had pen pals, and our childhood pictures are likely in a tin box or photo album somewhere in our parents’ attic. By the time we came into contact with technology as our children know it, we were adults with our own set of values and ethics based on an analogue world.

Having our own in-house IT department might have its benefits, but it doesn’t make parenting any easier: we are tasked with teaching digital natives to be responsible digital citizens in an ever-changing online environment that we may not fully grasp but which is an essential part of their life.

What is a “responsible digital citizen”?

According to Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit organisation dedicated to helping kids safely manoeuvre technology and media, being a good digital citizen is more than just knowing how to surf the internet. It’s about using technology safely and responsibly, and being equipped with the knowledge of how to handle cyberbullying, internet safety and other digital issues.

Schools in Doha are striving to help children—and parents—understand what it means to be a responsible digital citizen. “We don’t have a specific definition at this point,” says Jeff Kersting, director of innovation and technology at the American School of Doha (ASD), “but we do have a user agreement that our students and parents are required to sign and which defines the responsible actions one needs to take using technology in school and out—these actions include only sharing passwords with teachers and parents, and refraining from leaving rude or unkind messages on other people’s spaces.”

Understanding age limits

According to AmanTECH—an resource created by Vodafone to help educate parents about digital safety—the average age at which children in Qatar receive their first internet-enabled device is eight years old. But with content for all ages available online, how can parents know whether their child is accessing age-appropriate content?

Most online services—including social media platforms, games, retailers and email account providers—have a minimum age limit as defined by laws that protect children online. The majority of social media platforms require users to be at least 13 to sign up, in accordance with the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

In Europe, the minimum age to sign up for online services varies from country to country, but it ranges between 13 and 18 years old, as required by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. Qatar was the first GCC nation to issue a general privacy law in November 2016. The law establishes a separate category of personal data that is afforded particular protection and which includes, among others, data related to children.

Though specific rules preventing children from accessing inappropriate content or exposing their personal information online are in place, parents don’t always have the tools to enforce them and they sometimes even ignore them.

According to a 2016 survey by the UK-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), one in five parents in the UK is unaware of the age restrictions on social media and don’t know if their children are old enough to set up an account. “Parents can be proactive by having conversations with their children about online safety as soon as they start using the internet,” says NSPCC Head of Online Safety Claire Lilley.

Setting boundaries

A few simple and effective tools to minimise the risks children face online are available at every parent’s fingertips—these are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to raising responsible digital citizens, but they are a good place to start.

Most Wi-Fi routers, smartphones and tablets come with parental controls, which can prevent children from accessing inappropriate content.

Older children can be taught to create strong passwords and to change them regularly. Social media networks also have privacy settings that can restrict who can view and share information about the account owner.

Asking kids to read a privacy policy or the terms and conditions required to set up an online account may be far-fetched, but it is important to teach them to think—or ask a parent—before they click on the “agree” button.

“The best way to offer children protection is through awareness,” said Kelly Tymburski, head of telecoms, media and technology in the Middle East at Dentons, a global law firm. “That is to say, helping them understand the importance of keeping private information private and teaching them the risks of putting personal data out onto the net.”

According to Shaikh Abdulkhader, a father and the chief technology security officer at Vodafone Qatar, encouraging an open dialogue is key. “Children could be exposed to harmful or unethical content online or be the target of cyberbullying. Encouraging openness and having honest conversations with them help kids be open to discussing their problems without being afraid of punishment.”

Kersting agrees that keeping an open and honest dialogue with children about the risks they face online is paramount—he also believes in actively taking preventive steps to control children’s online identity. “Unfortunately, there are bad people who want to do bad things with your online profile, so parents need to be involved enough that they have control over it,” he says. As one preventative step, Kersting suggests purchasing domain names for your children to help prevent identify theft in the future. A domain name is a web page name, like JoeSmith.com. “Purchasing domain names for your children is a good starting point—it’s relatively inexpensive and it provides a foundation for their online lives.”

To help parents educate their children about staying safe online, the MOTC has created an awareness campaign using the Twitter hashtag #secure4safety. Among other things, the campaign urges parents to teach their children to avoid free online games and other services that request personal information such as their QID number or credit card details.

The MOTC has also recently unveiled Safe Space, an online portal designed to help children, parents and teachers make the internet a safer place. “As parents, we ought to know how our children are accessing online services,” reads an article on Safe Space. “This is really challenging and impossible in some ways, as parents and educators cannot always be present to supervise what children are doing online.” The MOTC advises parents to establish family rules for using the internet, including time limits, and to teach them to never disclose personal identifying information—name, phone number, address, etc.—online.

Civic online reasoning

As most kids use the internet to do school-related research but also rely heavily on social media to keep up with the news, it is important to teach them about authoritative, trustworthy sources of information. You may not feel the need to explain that a reputable newspaper is more credible than a friend of a friend’s tale they heard at school. However, things are a lot more complicated online: picture-heavy news feeds, advertised content and the occasional hoax are a maze that even digital experts struggle to navigate.

Between 2015 and 2016, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education in the US studied what they refer to as civic online reasoning. The study, which involved middle school, high school and college students, concluded that young people are unable to reason about and question the information on the internet.

As the MOTC simply puts it on Safe Space, parents should “teach children that not everything they read online is true.”

Building a digital reputation

As we share personal information online—not only pictures or videos, but also comments on social media, blogs or forums—we create a digital footprint: a record of our online activities that is there to stay. Adults who grew up in an analogue world have no digital footprint of their youth but since the advent of social media there have been countless episodes of employees losing their jobs because of inappropriate comments they posted online. In 2008, for example, a group of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew was fired for making inappropriate comments about the airline’s passengers on their personal Facebook pages.

It is unclear how children’s digital footprints will affect their adult and professional lives, but the rule of thumb should be: better safe than sorry. The MOTC’s Safe Space portal features a number of articles directed at kids, parents and teachers on how to build good “netiquette”—proper online manners—as well as a video to remind kids that “good manners should be used everywhere, including in e-mail, online posts and text messages.”

“As parents, we understand the significance of honour,” reads one of Vodafone’s AmanTECH resources. “Our experience tells us that our reputation and that of our children has huge implications and that it is important to protect it. This is true in the digital world, just as it is in the real world.”

What parents can do

  • Familiarise yourself with your children’s school’s definition of “responsible digital citizens” and apply the same concept and rules at home—teach children that they are expected to behave responsibly online
  • Educate yourself on the age limits for the websites, games and applications your children use
  • Make an effort to read the terms and conditions for using websites and applications. Look for information on whether your children’s data might be shared with third parties, and check the rules around data retention—how long your children’s information will be kept for before being deleted
  • Discuss proper online manners with your children
  • Explain the risks of sharing personal information online and remind children that everything they share online leaves a digital trace—help them build a positive digital footprint
  • Establish rules about internet use
  • Set parental controls where necessary