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Jonathan Gardner is director of communications at Turn.

You’ve heard all the stories by now, about the intern fired for a tweet; the college admissions officers who check out social media sites before sending offer letters; the HR folks who track data about potential job candidates.
But a tidy, G-rated Facebook profile isn’t enough to guarantee a job offer anymore. Data is becoming a bigger part of corporate and academic decision-making, and America’s youth need to know that the trail they leave online — the sites they visit, the photos they share, the purchases they make – promises to follow them for a long time to come.

Teaching kids how to conduct themselves online has become a matter of urgency. As Internet pioneer Vint Cerf pointed out at a recent conference, “privacy may be an anomaly,” and we need to prepare for a future in which “it will be increasingly difficult for us to achieve” it. “Our social behavior is quite damaging to privacy,” he adds. “Technology has outraced our social intellect.”

I’m inclined to consider his comments understatements.


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American society has a responsibility to cultivate the next generation’s social intellect, by implementing a national Digital Citizenship curriculum. Just as civics classes taught our grandparents how to be productive citizens, Digital Citizenship classes will teach our kids how to use technology safely and effectively. The rationale for teaching Digital Citizenship is no different from the rationale for drivers’ ed – or sex ed, for that matter. In every case, the tools are powerful, and the consequences of misuse dire. Teaching Digital Citizenship will prepare students for a life of interaction with technology.

According to a survey conducted by Microsoft, today’s teens “share considerably more information online than their parents and, as a result, expose themselves to more risk; they also feel more in control of their online reputations” and are managing their online reputations more actively. This is good news not only for teens and their parents, but also for marketers. Yes, marketers.

Educated users are engaged consumers. With the launch of earlier this year, the data broker Acxiom acknowledged that its clients benefit from having access to a population of informed users. By giving users access to (some of) the data Acxiom stores about them, it offers a glimpse into how the sausage of advertising is made. Unequivocally pro-data and pro-advertising, the site argues that better data will lead to better advertising, a winning proposition for marketers and consumers. Informed consumers are better for everyone – and educated users are informed consumers.

But even when they are informed, not everyone is aware of or concerned by potential personal data pitfalls. In a survey of consumers and companies this fall, Turn found that only about half of all consumers have concerns about their data and privacy: This may be good for marketers, but it’s also indicative of just how tough it will be to get young people to care about protecting themselves online.

Most of us are willing to tear down the walls of “privacy” in exchange for knowing that our friends are nearby, which restaurant is good, or that we can get a dollar off a taco. However, not everyone who has access to our data is going to be a good actor, so we all need to take steps to safeguard our digital future before it has unintended consequences on our analog one.

On a daily basis, it’s easy to see the need for a roadmap to plot our way in an era of the “new privacy.” When one-to-one dialogues in public settings are subject to live-tweeting, broadcasting the intimate for the world to see, it’s clear that to “reclaim the last shred of privacy we have left in this social media era,” as Nisha Chittal wrote, we need rules and guidelines, a curriculum for a civil digital society.

This is just one small piece of the Digital Citizenship equation, of course, but it does reinforce the notion that technology and society are, now and forever, inextricably linked. Teaching American students how to conduct themselves online safely and responsibly will produce a new generation of informed, engaged digital citizens who understand how to connect, collaborate, and contribute in our increasingly online world.

jonathan gardnerJonathan Gardner is director of communications at Turn, the marketing software and analytics platform. He has spent his career as an innovator at the nexus of media and technology, having worked in communications and as a journalist in the US and globally.

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