Where they are now: Microsoft’s Council for Digital Good six months later

Illustration of laurel branches with computer power on button in the center

In July 2018, we concluded our inaugural Council for Digital Good, an initiative involving 15 teens from 12 U.S. states, selected to help advance our work in digital civility: promoting safer and healthier online interactions among all people. Six months later and just weeks away from international Safer Internet Day 2019, we wanted to share what these impressive young people have done since their council term ended, as well as what they have planned for next month.

Since leaving our second council event in Washington, D.C., last July, our teens have recounted their council experiences on social media and in other online venues. Christina from Georgia penned two different blog posts for separate online safety-focused non-profits (blog #1, blog #2), and several teens conducted educational and after-school sessions for parents, students and younger kids. Jazmine, a particularly enterprising 14-year-old from Kentucky, and one of our youngest council members, started her own website. And, three council members – Bronte, Christina and Judah – were offered a once-in-lifetime opportunity for the second time and spoke with first lady Melania Trump, this time in November at the Family Online Safety Institute annual conference. (All council members spent time one-on-one with the first lady in D.C. in July.)

Council members turned counselors

Nearly all of the teens told us they’ve used their newfound knowledge to counsel friends and classmates who had encountered online risks. “I applied to the council because I wanted to make an impact on cyberbullying on social media,” said Erin from Michigan. ”Through the council, though, I’ve learned that there are so many more dangers that impact young people across a multitude of platforms and, now that I’m educated on these subjects, I can share them with the students and parents in my community.”

In a few cases, risk exposure among peers was quite serious, involving sextortion or harassment. After engaging on several occasions through the council with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Thorn, one teen was able to share relevant resources with a friend of a friend. “I knew they (Thorn) had a text hotline and I was able to direct her to that,” this council member said. “She never contacted me afterward, which I take as a good sign.”

Council members have also been striking up deep conversations with friends and family members about weighty online issues like violent extremism. “Something I find myself talking about a lot (with friends) is the process of radicalization of youth online for hate groups,” said one teen who is now in college. “It’s a topic that is as unfortunate as it is fascinating to discuss. We talk about the geopolitics involved, the technical sophistication of (extremist groups), and what can be done online to stop them. I speak from my knowledge of our call with Public Safety Canada.”

Over the course of the 18-month council program, we held monthly conference calls with the teens and their parents. We’d often invite guest speakers so the teens could hear and learn firsthand from experts – like Thorn – about an array of online safety topics. In late 2017, officials from Public Safety Canada spoke to the teens about online hate and violent extremism and sought council members’ input on how best to reach young people with impactful counter-messages.

“To me, there was no greater opportunity than to converse and debate over the various issues that the internet has created over time,” said William from the state of Washington. “My favorite part was discussing the various issues and learning from my peers. I do miss being able to give input to various organizations … I felt like I was contributing to something much bigger than myself.”

Many of the teens have since told us that in addition to missing each other, they also miss the monthly calls and engaging with outside groups and NGOs. Some also said they miss working together on projects like their written cohort manifesto and their open letter to law and policymakers. One of my favorite responses: “I miss having a platform where I knew I was being listened to.”

Looking to Safer Internet Day 2019 and beyond

International Safer Internet Day will take place on Feb. 5, and many of our teens plan to spread the message of “Together for a safer internet” in their schools and communities. More than half of our council members are planning presentations to their PTAs, schools, clubs or other organizations, and they’re reaching out to educators, school administrators, peers and local elementary schools to arrange activities. Erin from Michigan even requested that Safer Internet Day and other important web links about online safety topics be included on her school and district calendars.

The teens each crafted their own presentations and chose discussion topics for their Safer Internet Day events. Fighting back against online bullying and harassment are popular topics, but several are equally focused on online reputation management and digital footprints. “I’m very passionate about internet safety and social activism,” says Indigo from California. “It’s important to me to make sure that every person is safe, comfortable and respected. Especially as technology and social media continue to advance, we need to continue fighting for these rights. The council and all of the things that we discussed remain with me, especially the aspect of how your online persona and reputation will no doubt affect you in real life.”

After Feb 5., a handful of council members said they’re planning information sessions for parents and other adults, given the impact these people play in teens’ lives. According to new research from our latest digital civility study, now more than ever, young people around the world are turning to their parents and other trusted adults for advice and guidance about online issues. “It’s equally important to educate the adults,” notes William.

Christina has an opportunity for an internship with an international nonprofit, and some of the teens may be tapped to discuss their council experiences with other technology companies that are considering setting up councils or other youth-focused initiatives.

At Microsoft, we’re so grateful to these teens and their parents for what they have given to us over the past two years. As a global, connected community, we can’t help but improve online safety and interactions with young people like these driving us forward.

“All I can do is improve how I act online, and how I leave my digital footprint,” said Bronte from Ohio. “I can also encourage my fellow classmates, friends, and family to act better online, and to really think before posting something that they might regret. Step by step, change can be made … it all has to start somewhere!”

Bronte, we couldn’t agree more.

Learn more

You can read the council’s cohort manifesto here, as well as their open letter to U.S. law and policymakers about working together to improve life online. To learn more about digital civility, visit: www.microsoft.com/digitalcivility, and for more about online safety generally, see our website and resources page; “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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