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Teaching Digital Citizenship

EducationWorld is pleased to share this article shared by Maryalene LaPonsie. She is a contributor to whose work has been featured on FoxBusiness, AOL, MSN Money and numerous other sites.

One doesn’t have to travel far on the Internet to see our collective digital citizenship—or lack thereof—on display.

For example, within 48 hours of George Zimmerman being acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, more than 75,000 comments flooded a CNN article, many of which we’d never imagine being said in an offline discussion.

Children and young adults’ online-etiquette gaffes often can be chalked up to limited experience and failure to consider the consequences of one’s actions. That means it’s vital to teach students 21st-century digital citizenship skills.

What is Digital Citizenship?

Digital citizenship refers to the overall experience of navigating the online world. Good citizenship on the Internet encompasses everything from taking safety precautions to practicing proper social etiquette.

Author of the popular book Digital Citizenship in Schools, Mark Ribble is often cited as an expert in the field. In his book, he lays out nine elements of digital citizenship:

  1. Access:  Good digital citizenship starts with working toward all individuals having full access to online and digital resources.
  2. Commerce:  Individuals should understand the role of online marketplaces and avoid illegal or unethical practices such as downloading pirated material.
  3. Communication:  Email, instant messaging and social media have changed how we communicate, and individuals must learn how to make wise use of these communication methods.
  4. Etiquette:  One of the most widely noted aspects of digital citizenship is online etiquette and the ability to interact appropriately with others in the virtual world. Included among these skills is avoiding cyberbullying and knowing what to do when one experiences or witnesses it.
  5. Health and wellness:  Long hours on the computer can cause back pain and eye strain or be a symptom of an Internet addiction. Good digital citizens must learn how to balance their time online with their physical and psychological well-being.
  6. Literacy:  Digital literacy means knowing what technology is available and how to use it.
  7. Law:  The virtual world is not free from laws or regulations, and users must be aware of how they can use the material they find online.
  8. Rights and responsibilities:  Online and digital media users should have a right to privacy and free speech, but they also have a responsibility to act appropriately within the virtual realm.
  9. Security:  Finally, good digital citizenship means understanding the risks involved with using technology and taking precautions such as setting up firewalls and backing up computer data.

Christopher McGilvery of Angelo State University notes that in addition to the above skills, students should know how to take care of technology equipment and protect it from viruses and similar threats. They also should know how to identify—and appropriately credit and cite—Web sources. Finally, since potential employers and college admission staff often view applicants’ profiles, young people should know how to promote positive personal images of themselves online.

The Challenge for 21st-Century Learners

Even for those raised on the Web, good digital citizenship may not come easily. A Microsoft whitepaper revealed many teens have participated in or witnessed examples of poor digital citizenship.

  • 1.5 million teens say they have sent sexually suggestive videos or images of themselves with a mobile device, while 6 million teens say they have received suggestive images from someone they know.
  • 86 percent of teens believe it is acceptable to illegally download and share music.
  • 49 percent of teens say they have received or viewed hateful, sexist or racist messages online.

In response to these kinds of challenges, some organizations have developed free curriculums (e.g., those from Common Sense Media and Google).

In addition, digital citizenship education may be most effective when integrated into other subjects. For example, students should be made aware of image and text copyrights while doing research for reports, and they should develop skills for evaluating the trustworthiness of online sources.

Other ways to integrate digital citizenship into everyday activities:

  • If you’re exploring a current event in the news, particularly a controversial one, have students take a look at reader comments below online articles. (Teachers should pre-screen these.) Have students talk about what does and does not constitute respectful online behavior.
  • Staging a classroom debate? Take the discussion into a secure (invite- or members-only) social media platform and encourage kids to practice appropriate commenting.
  • Enhance bullying prevention lessons by reading online stories of young people’s cyberbullying experiences (pre-screened by the teacher). Talk about what could have stopped the abuse and helped the target.
  • Have students create multimedia projects using materials from Creative Commons, giving them a chance to practice appropriate crediting. If kids are writing papers or reports, use How to Use Wikipedia in the Classroom to talk about proper use of Wikipedia.
  • Discuss the consequences of inappropriate online posting. These discussion guides can help:
  • If a school computer gets infected with a virus, talk about what will be done to remove the threat and what can be done to prevent future problems.
  • Talk about the limits of free speech and the fact that freedom of speech does not necessarily mean freedom from consequences. This guide can help: Lesson Plan Booster: Digital Literacy and Online Ethics.

The goal is to create a community of learners who understand how to use digital resources effectively, efficiently and responsibly. With proper guidance from educators and parents, today’s students will be poised to make the Internet of tomorrow a better place.

Related resources

Promoting Responsible and Ethical Digital Citizens


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