An online digital community comes in many forms, from social media to Fortnite to topical message boards for people seeking information around a specific subject of interest.  Social networks–such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn–were founded on pre-existing interpersonal relationships, whereas other internet communities such as Reddit were founded on bringing strangers from a variety of backgrounds together over a common interest, often in an open forum-style space.  

All these types of digital communities have momentum and are shaping the way in which individuals engage with one another.  With children growing up online and technology constantly changing, it is important that internet users are educated on digital citizenship topics early, and remain informed so that they understand the inherent risks of the internet and online communities along with the significant rewards.

Here are the basics of online communities that you need to know now:

The Risks

Online communities can feel and function like close-knit in-person communities. This can lead to a false sense of safety, perhaps for young people most of all.  The ease and prevalence of information-sharing can make disseminating personal details (such as provocative photos/videos or current location) feel inconsequential when it can actually lead to real physical and/or legal consequences. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are coming of age online and creating digital footprints while they are still maturing and learning. Given the instantaneous and “viral” nature of the web, the consequences of a bad choice made online can multiply quickly as information or media is shared.

In addition to safety concerns, there are emotional risks that children must navigate.  Cyberbullying is rampant on social media and in digital communities and more than one-third of teens report having been a victim of it.  Cruel comments online or circulation of someone’s private photos or videos can cause damaging effects.  In order to remain mentally well, it is crucial that people try to keep their online interactions positive and that they participate in offline activities such as exercise and face-to-face socializing.  An excess of online time can lead to sleep loss, depression, and other negative outcomes. With safe internet practices and a healthy online/offline balance, digital citizens can take advantage of the many benefits of digital communities.

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.

The Rewards of an Online Community

Without question, an online community can provide enormous value.  They serve as hubs of information where people, many who may not otherwise have access, can learn about almost anything, find answers to urgent questions, engage in niche discussions, and discover opportunities for personal growth.  It can be a positive environment for entertainment and recreation and the ability to contribute content and be heard can build up members’ confidence. While it is essential that internet users are taught to discern fact from fiction online, and legitimate sources from non-expert opinions, a digital community  can present a wealth of knowledge, such as tutorials, health suggestions for uncommon conditions, or an exchange of best practices among professionals in a shared field. 

On an emotional level, many individuals find solace online in building bonds with others going through similar experiences as themselves.  These groups may even serve as safe havens, particularly for those who may feel marginalized or isolated within their offline communities..  There is truly no end to the communities available, including LGBTQ forums, chat rooms for victims of bullying (cyber or otherwise), networks for people living with illnesses, and suicide support groups.  Forging online connections can literally save lives.

The Business Benefits of Digital Communities

Organizations should recognize the benefits of digital communities  and consider building their own digital community to engage directly with consumers in new ways.  By disseminating helpful information, improving ease of communication and quality of interactions, and providing relevant education, businesses can create meaningful touchpoints and build trust with consumers and prospects all under one roof.  These connections can be fruitful for their bottom line, too, as one study found that customers who join a company’s internet community spend 19% more.  Businesses can also lower costs by streamlining transactions online, such as the return process, and monitoring users’ complaints for instant feedback on its products and services.

Since online communities can pose risk factors, managing one comes with a responsibility to promote safe and healthy online behaviors.  Businesses should recognize these risks and exhibit thought leadership and cultivate goodwill by investing in critical digital literacy education for community members.  Today’s children (and future consumers) were born in the age of social networks, often raised using iPads and other devices from a very young age. Thus, digital wellness education must start early and cover topics such real-world issues as the long-term effects of digital decisions, ethical use of online tools and resources, leveraging the web for educational and career opportunities, and other technology concepts.  

Online communities can enrich lives as long as individuals understand how to navigate the risks.  Digital wellness education, disseminated early and reinforced often, is a key part of the solution.

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.