Digital civility highlighted at child online protection event

Sign for conference about online sexual abuse of children

Last week, I organized a workshop on digital civility at the Marie Collins Foundation annual conference, “From Discovery to Recovery – Online Sexual Abuse of Children.” Microsoft is a sponsor of the foundation, a U.K.-based charity that directly supports children who have been sexually abused online, as well as their families.

Our session included representatives from UNICEF, The Diana Award (also representing, and the academic sector, in addition to Microsoft. The interactive session examined definitions and nomenclature surrounding digital civility, as well as examples from audience members of advice and guidance they’ve given to their own children and students about exercising decorum and engaging constructively online.

During the workshop, we asked participants a series of questions about the level of safety and respect on the internet; the most common and serious online risks; the chief differences between risk and harm; and as global practitioners and preventers of online harm to children (and indeed all individuals), where we should be putting our collective efforts. The responses were wide-ranging. For some, digital civility is about courtesy, respect and digital intelligence; compassion and empathy; and being mindful and aware of other people’s feelings, views and frames of reference. Others see a need to interact with a degree of politeness and to instill a “please-and-thank-you” culture into the digital realm. Still others saw civility as springing from deep-seated human values and morality and emphasized that teaching children enduring values in the real-world will see them carried through to online spaces.

Meanwhile, participants pointed to a redefining of what it means to have and to be a “friend” as a rather unwelcome by-product of life online. “Internet addiction,” a deterioration of communications skills, and an absence of parental responsibility for teaching young people good digital habits and practices were other concerns.

One leading online safety advocate said digital civility implied a rather “low bar” for positive digital interactions. Pointing to the all-too-familiar parental intervention of addressing squabbling siblings in the back seat of a car, he said the admonishment of telling them to “at least be civil to each other” was clearly a low hurdle.

Microsoft’s efforts to foster digital civility

At Microsoft, we view digital civility as leading with empathy, inclusion and kindness in all online interactions, and we aim to foster safer and healthier online behavior using our Digital Civility Challenge as a starting point. In our view, digital civility is in no way about limiting or stifling online discussion and debate. Rather, it’s about ensuring that robust exchanges and disagreement take place minus any name-calling, harassment or abuse.

We continue to champion digital civility and are in the process of fielding yet another round of research, this time in 22 countries. We’ve conducted similar studies released earlier this year and last year, both in conjunction with international Safer Internet Day in February. Our studies survey teens and adults in multiple geographies and ask about their exposure to some 20 online risks.

For the past two years, we also calculated our Digital Civility Index – a measure of the perceived level of civility in each country based on attitudes and perceptions of respondents from those countries. The current Digital Civility Index stands at 65 percent, unchanged from Year 1, despite the addition of nine countries and three risks to the Year 2 report. Accordingly, in Year 3, our research will drill down into the most common risks and concerns for respondents, namely unwanted contact – overwhelmingly the most common risk in the first two studies, as well as hoaxes, fraud and scams, which was the runner-up most common risk in Year 2, the first time it was included.

We will begin releasing Year 3 results in the autumn and make the full set of findings available on international Safer Internet Day 2019 in February.

Working together to grow a culture of digital civility      

Since its inception in 2016, we’ve regarded our focus on digital civility as a broad platform and concept for others to evangelize and embrace. Indeed, we’ve encouraged partners and collaborators among civil society organizations, academics, others in industry and governments to adopt the notion and to develop their own related initiatives, projects and programs. In its short existence, we’ve already seen follow-on research projects for other age groups and demographics, the creation of related indices and other efforts.

Our most significant development to date has been the formation and growth of our inaugural Council for Digital Good, a group of 15 teens from across the U.S., brought together to champion digital civility and safer and healthier online interactions.

For the past year, the teens have been learning about online safety issues, sharing their views and perspectives with Microsoft and our partners, and serving as youth ambassadors eager to grow a safer and more respectful online world. Everywhere I go – including last week’s conference – I highlight the informed views, unique perspectives and deep insights these teens continually impart. Next month, we will hold a more public event in Washington, D.C., featuring council members and some of the work they’ve been driving over the past several weeks. Summaries of the council’s earlier work can be found here and here.

Last week’s conference also featured government officials, law enforcement personnel, educators and other members of civil society, noting their efforts in working to prevent online child sexual exploitation and abuse and their commitment to child online protection generally.

For more about the Marie Collins Foundation, see the organization’s website. To learn about online safety and digital civility, visit our website and resources page, as well as our pages dedicated to digital civility. For more regular news and information, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter. And, consider taking our Digital Civility Challenge and tell us on social media that you’ve done so, using the hashtags #Challenge4Civility and #Im4Civility.

At the time of writing of this post, Jacqueline Beauchere’s title was Chief Online Safety Officer.