Now THIS is digital citizenship

About a book by a 12-year-old activist (and her educator mom) who are showing us how it’s done

Olivia Van Ledtje, age 12, is a social media influencer but in a good way. A powerful way, actually. Spark Change: Making Your Mark in a Digital World — a new book she co-authored with her mom, teacher, speaker and education consultant Cynthia Merrill — explains what “powerful” means to a child and a whole lot of her peers.

Olivia tells the story of giving a talk two years ago in a western Massachusetts elementary school auditorium that was packed with students and teachers from 3 school communities. She writes that, after her talk, the students wanted to ask “loads of one-of-a-kind kid questions — the kind I can never feel fully prepared to answer.”

But this time she was really inspired by the questions she got and didn’t leave questioning her answers. “In fact, I felt proudest of my final one — so much so that it’s become a central message in all of my subsequent school visits.”

A student had asked her, “How does it feel to be famous?” “I didn’t even hesitate in my response,” Liv writes. “I’m not famous, I’m global!” she told him. And the packed auditorium erupted with cheering from her peers. “I was so grateful to those kids for encouraging and believing in the purpose of my LivBit work.”

Better than famous

What her audience got is that there’s something bigger than famous — bigger in terms of scope (global, referring to the worldwide following of tens of thousands of educators, children’s authors and students Olivia has amassed on social media platforms), yes, but also in terms of being more meaningful (to her and her elementary school peers) and in terms of hope. Fame is not something any kid can do. What Olivia does is something any kid can do — with the support of the adults in their life and connected media.

So what is it that she does? A lot of things along the lines of sharing her thinking in digital media, but “LivBits” are what Olivia, or Liv, has been doing the longest (since she was 8). They’re little 60–80 second “selfie videos” she posts in social media for peers and teachers. Because she loves to read, they’re about what she learns from and loves about books, something that people — like the books’ authors, librarians and educators who teach with her favorite books — wanted to follow. So her network organically grew (as of this writing, @theLivBits has 44,600 followers on Twitter and close to that on Instagram). She also loves sharks and ichthyology, the study of them, so they too have figured prominently in LivBits. Soon teachers who followed her started using selfie videos in their classrooms, giving their little students voice. Liv got invited to schools to speak to peers about her experience and be their tech and media mentor. Her original LivBit topics have naturally broadened out to what Liv learns from speaking, life, and learning from people of all ages online, in her PLN (professional learning network), and her travels. She has also expanded into other media, having created a podcast (interviewing authors), a blog, keynote speaking at educators’ conferences and now authoring a book.

Those are the basics of this young activist’s work, but let me come back to the bigger-than-famous part and what sparked three schools’ worth of children filling an auditorium with cheering. “Kids want to have purpose in their connected lives,” Liv writes in Spark Change. She was showing them how, and they got it. In the auditorium and online, she’d been demonstrating for them how they can have and grow their voice and make a difference in the world too. This is digital citizenship, or just citizenship in a digital age: helping children find and take their place in the world by providing the tools and opportunities to express and act on what’s important to them. It’s self and citizen actualization.

‘The Selfie Center’

How did Liv and Cynthia arrive at this formula? It started when Cynthia was teaching at the University of New Hampshire. For a research project, she created “The Selfie Center,” where her graduate students would make short selfie videos in which they’d process out loud their student-teaching experiences. When they later had their own classrooms, many of her former grad students would send Cynthia selfie videos their little students had made.

Co-authors Olivia Van Ledtje and Cynthia Merrill in their book trailer

“I was fascinated by how much more kids would say and the deep reflection they’d do when talking on video to themselves,” Cynthia told me in a phone interview. Liv later wrote in their book that “these elementary students talked about their thinking as readers, and I just loved watching their videos over and over again. I was fascinated by how kids talked about books they loved, and I thought to myself, I can make those kinds of videos too!”

But what turned the video consumer into a creator was a really hard situation at school. Liv was bullied in 2nd and 3rd grades by a small group of kids. It got so bad she had to be transferred to another class. She missed her friends in her old class, Cynthia told me, and her self-esteem took a nosedive so “I told her, you’re such an amazing reader, why don’t you make your own videos about what you’re reading, and I’ll put it on my Instagram?”

Cynthia writes, “I wanted Liv to have a project where she could see herself the way I saw her: caring, smart, and resourceful. I knew if she talked about her reading, she’d get feedback from people other than me, and maybe she’d believe in herself a little more” — what Cynthia had learned from her university teaching and what Liv had learned from watching the results. It’s an understatement to say that it worked. Read the book to find out how.

Kid-focused, citizen-sourced

Spark Change is breaking new ground. It opens eyes to children and young people’s view of the world — how they want to engage with it and how they’d like us to work with them to that end, using the tech and media tools of their world. Each chapter features a young activist, and there are seven of them:

  • Digital Rights, where the authors urge us to consider that digital access and connected learning are children’s rights
  • Digital Purpose, along with autonomy and mastery as the intrinsic rewards that kids crave because they’re about doing work that’s meaningful to them
  • Digital Authenticity, where we learn about Liv’s dozens-strong #digitalcrew that provides digital safety backup (one of them is @helentheshark, who taught her how to “block [meanness] and bloom”), though Cynthia notes, importantly, that “in three years’ time, Liv has had only four instances on social media platforms when she needed assistance”
  • Digital Creation, about how “creating content online helps kids feel connected to the world,” among many other things
  • Digital Activism, where author Kate DiCamillo taught Liv to ask, “How do I see humanity?” (“I think Kate’s advice about noticing humanity is what being an activist is all about,” Liv writes)
  • Digital Exploration, helping teachers help kids make social media a “learning landscape”….

The last chapter brings us back around to the future of (digital) citizenship, taking our understanding of it to the next level by modeling how it’s citizen-sourced. “Technology in the hands of children sparks the change we need in the world,” Cynthia writes. “Let them tell their stories. Help them lift their stories. Believe their stories can change humanity.”

The power of knowing who you are

Early in the book Liv talks about a word she came across for her family’s nightly game of finding a word that stumps everybody. One night, when it was her turn, she brought everybody a word from New Zealand: turangawaewae. “Her word definitely stumped me,” Cynthia writes. They laughed because Liv had found this word, one of the Maori people’s most powerful concepts, when the two of them were in the middle of writing this book. It was perfect. To me (and I suspect to Liv and Cynthia, though I haven’t asked them), it fundamentally expresses the ground from which humans and citizens grow. It has two parts, Cynthia found: turanga, or “standing place” and waewae, or “feet.” It’s a beautiful metaphor. Because growing up is all about finding one’s “standing place” in the world. As a subject that’s taught, digital citizenship must be in service to that. Because it’s also a process that belongs to each citizen — a process that Liv, for example, knows that she owns.

For a perspective on the rights of young digital citizens, see this. Anne Collier is founder and executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative, a US-based nonprofit organization. She has been writing about youth and digital media at since before there were blogs (1997) and advising tech companies since 2009 (full-length bio here).

Youth advocate; blogger,; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative

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