Microsoft’s Council for Digital Good holds inaugural summit on improving civility online

On Aug. 2 and 3, we welcomed to our Redmond, Washington campus members of our inaugural Council for Digital Good – 15 teens from across the U.S. selected to explore the state of digital civility and how together we can foster safer and healthier online interactions for everyone.

Photo of inaugural Council for Digital Good – 15 teens from across the U.S. selected to explore the state of digital civility
© Chris Neir, Digital Media Specialist Back row from left: Bronte Johnson, Rees Draminski, Jacob Sedesse, Robert Buckley, William Fischer. Front row from left: Katherine Choi, Miosotis Ramos, Champe Scoble, Judah Siegand, Christina Woodrow, Sierra Williams-Mcleod, Erin Roberts, Isabella Wang, Indigo Eatmon, Jazmine Harry.

We also invited one parent or chaperone to accompany each teen council member and we aimed to engage this group, as well. The two-day summit was jam-packed with council-only and full-group discussions; educational panels; presentations by, and interactive sessions with, guest speakers; and some fun in downtown Seattle. Teen council members came ready to share their views and make new friends. They also got a glimpse into everyday life at Microsoft, which came largely in the form of a 90-minute “speed-mentoring” session with 16 employees from a variety of disciplines and teams across the company.

Day One highlights: The state of online interaction

Day One’s theme was the state of online interaction “today” and “tomorrow.” In the months leading up to the summit, we got to know the council members through conference calls, email and social media connections. We were aware of some of their concerns: online bullying, harassment, hate speech and anonymity that can enable the spread of negativity. They were eager to learn and to devise ways to help their peers and communities lead safer, healthier online lives.

An in-depth discussion the first morning surfaced five, interrelated issues of chief concern to the teen council members:

  • Self-obsession and the need to constantly post and share personal information
  • Addiction” to screens, connectedness, likes and followers
  • Social posturing to frame one’s online image as positive, provocative, exciting or enviable
  • A lack of authenticity and transparency that inhibits individuals from being their true selves online, and
  • The prevalence of online hate.

Here are a few comments that helped to synthesize this short list of issues:

  • “Online, everyone only shares the good things going on in their lives, so people think their lives are perfect.”
  • “There are people out there that just like drama.”
  • “You can be so many different people online.”
  • “Being online gives you a false sense of security. You can say whatever you want to whomever you want without any real-life repercussions.”
  • Online, “people unpack their baggage on you.”
  • “It’s (unthinkable) that you will not be harassed online.”
  • “So much of what’s online comes from observational learning – modeling bad behavior in others.”

One council member even reflectively wished a parent would have questioned years ago whether the teen was “ready for social media.” Nearly all council members said they had social media profiles before age 13 and with parental permission. One started at age 8.

Parents want to get involved

Parents and chaperones acknowledged the nearly immeasurable benefits of the internet and life online, but were both shaken and excited by what they heard on Day One. “I need all of this information because I’m going back (to the school and community) to share this with everyone I know,” remarked one mother.

While the teen council members discussed online experiences, parents and chaperones received an overview of online safety, toured the Microsoft Cyber Crime Center, and heard from one of two guest speakers. They were eager for information on how to avoid risks and to better protect themselves and their families. We pointed to the wealth of information at our website and on our resources page, and offered handouts on topics such as sexting, online bullying and the need for online reputation management. We also shared findings from our new Microsoft research that served as the foundation for our current campaign for digital civility — leading with empathy and kindness in all online interactions and treating each other with respect and dignity.

Day Two highlights:  Teen council members craft individual manifestos

Our teen council members knew ahead of the summit that once on site, we would ask them to draft individual “manifestos” for life online, each containing between 10 and 15 points. We left the task deliberately vague to spark interpretation and creativity among the group. Still, the points, we said, should provide general online behavioral guidance and offer calls to action to promote healthy interactions. Council members drew from the learning and perspectives gained on Day One, which helped them clarify their thinking and craft their manifestos. What each of them came up with in rather short order is truly remarkable. We were thoroughly impressed by the deep insights and clarity of thought that emerged. A few abbreviated highlights include:

  • Think critically
  • Earn and show respect
  • Build confidence in oneself and others
  • Think beyond “likes and followers,” and
  • One of my (many!) personal favorites: “Promote ‘life literacy’ — advocate for understanding of the media, government, corporations and basic social situations.”

Next steps for the council

The teen council members’ next assignment is to produce in about a month’s time a creative or artistic work that gives life to the words of their individual manifestos, both of which will be featured on our website. We’ve recruited musicians, dancers and sports and technology enthusiasts, so we’re eager to see what each teen council member creates. After the artistic assignments, we’ll give the council time to come together further as a cohort, as they draft a single manifesto from the entire group. The target timeline for completion is just before Thanksgiving in the U.S., and we also intend to share this on our website. Throughout the fall and winter months, we will continue to offer council members opportunities to provide their feedback and views on a variety of projects, programs and campaigns from both Microsoft and our partners.

Many ‘thank yous’

I want to thank the Microsoft mentors, presenters, speakers and team members who helped make this summer summit a success. Also, thanks go to special guests, author Rosalind Wiseman from Cultures of Dignity (each of the teens – and even some family members – read one of her books prior to the summit); and Nicholas Carlisle, CEO of NoBully.org. Their contributions were invaluable, and the participants really enjoyed hearing from them. Most importantly, I want to thank the teen council members and parents and chaperones for their time, dedication and energy; you have given us a great gift of your perspectives and insights. Now, it’s up to us to start to take those forward.

At Microsoft, we’re driven to grow a kinder, more empathetic and respectful online world, and we are further emboldened to do so in partnership with this amazing group of young people!

You can follow council activities on our Facebook page and via Twitter using: #CouncilforDigitalGood.

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