Digital Citizenship For Marketing

It’s a well-known fact that today’s teens are “digital natives” – born “wired” into an ultra-connected world. They are early adopters and active consumers of trends in social media, often before the rest of us. And they’re not slowing down. Teens are using mobile technology at a voracious and increasing rate. According to the most recent large-scale research by Pew Research Internet Project: 

  • 78% of teens had a cell phone in 2013, and almost half (47%) of those were smartphones. 
  • About three in four teens (74%) ages 12-17 said they access the Internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices at least occasionally, if not daily. 
  • One in four teens are “cell-mostly” Internet users — far more than the 15% of adults who are cell-mostly.
According to a research report published earlier this year by Common Sense Media (“Advertising to Kids and Teens: Current Practices,” Jan. 28, 2014), digital media as a marketing platform, is growing in leaps and bounds. While it is only one way to target teens, many brands are looking to meet and engage teens where they are – online. 



However, working directly with teens through their devices may pose some ethical dilemmas. Digital savvy doesn’t necessarily translate to media literacy. Teens are still testing the waters, discovering boundaries and learning the consequences of their actions. They are more likely to act impulsively, take risks, and misinterpret social cues (that may be clear to adults), than younger kids. 

How can we engage in digital marketing with teens, while empowering them to make positive choices and stay safe online? We can take a cue from educators, schools, and parents around the country who are addressing these issues by teaching teens about digital citizenship. Digital citizenship, as defined by Cable Impacts’ (formerly Cable In The Classroom) InCtrl curriculum, is “a holistic and positive approach to helping students learn how to be safe and secure, as well as smart and effective participants in a digital world.” 

On the flip side, while they may be naïve about some things, being “natives” teens tend to use digital channels more intuitively than other audiences. To support, promote, and further encourage the positive attributes of a digital citizen, try these marketing practices we use in the Ed-tech sector: 

  • Be a teacher, not a preacher. 

As Frank Gallagher, executive director of Cable Impacts, writes, “The old fear-based approach doesn’t work, and it isn’t supported by the research about online risks, about risk prevention, or about effective teaching and learning.” Don’t bother with lectures and scary stories. Instead use positive messages and offer digital dilemmas like “What Would You Do?”-type scenarios that engage teens and encourage them to use their critical thinking, empathy, and their strong sense of justice. 

  • Learn the language.

Buzzwords constantly change and don’t do you any good unless you truly know what they mean. Digital footprint, cyberbullying, bystander, upstander, public domain, fair use, crowdsource, piracy, hack — make sure you know what these words mean if you use them in your messaging. Choose language that supports and reinforces the positive values of digital citizenship to elevate the concepts into the mainstream. For more, check out Cable Impact’s InCtrl lessons and videos here.

  • Know the boundaries. 

Study up on the Federal Trade Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known by many simply as COPPA. Never ask for personal information, like phone numbers or user locations, on a mobile app or social networking sites if they’re geared towards teens. If your approach involves photos, ask for “no-face selfies.” 

  • Create a two-way conversation.

Ask teens what they want and what they think. Engage teens in a way that encourages them to participate, collaborate, and share content in a responsible and genuine way. If you know your audience, and your marketing strategies are memorable, you’ll naturally harness the youthful energy of teens to spread the word without asking them to.

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