What is Digital Citizenship?
The internet has fundamentally changed the human experience. It’s impacted the way we exchange information, communicate, buy goods and services, learn, and much more. And while the internet offers huge benefits, it’s not without its share of dangers, risks, and unwanted side-effects.
Parents, educators, and politicians are all facing a new challenge: How to teach children and young adults how to use the internet responsibly. The term “Digital Citizenship” has emerged, as a way to describe the concept of being a responsible citizen, not only of one’s own country, but of the increasingly digital global world.
This guide seeks to explain what digital citizenship is, and what it means for children, parents, educators and more. We’ll explain how to teach children to use the internet safely and responsibly, how to establish boundaries and practice digital wellness, how to secure digital devices, and more.
What is digital citizenship?
Digital citizenship refers to how an individual uses digital tools and the internet - and whether or not digital use is managed in a responsible and safe manner. Digital citizenship applies to anyone who uses the internet regularly - which, increasingly, is the vast majority of the global population.
Put simply, a good digital citizen is someone who uses the internet safely, utilizes digital tools to connect with others in an empathetic manner, and who avoids overuse of social media and other addictive elements of the internet.
On the other hand, a bad digital citizen is someone who does not follow internet safety protocols, uses digital tools to bully or divide, and who overuses the internet to the point of being unhealthy.
The internet is a powerful tool. Online shopping, digital entertainment, social media and more can all be extremely useful tools - but only if used correctly. Responsible digital citizens know how to use these tools properly, rather than letting those tools use them. Digital citizenship best practices are vital for thriving in the 21st century - and it’s up to parents and educators to teach the elements of digital citizenship.
Teaching digital citizenship
Despite living in a digital age, digital citizenship is not yet taught in most schools. Although some educators are starting to at least introduce the topic, much of the responsibility falls on parents. If you’re looking to teach responsible digital citizenship, here’s now to start:
Understanding the internet yourself
Before you can teach responsible internet use, it’s important to understand the topics yourself. Educating yourself before guiding your children is not only helpful for their learning, but also for your own digital wellbeing. Like anything else, parents should remember that children often mimic our own behaviors - and how we behave online is no different. Teachers should understand privacy and security in the classroom, as well as how to teach children the necessary skills to be responsible digital citizens. Read through this article, as well as the linked resources, to gain a better understanding for yourself, before you begin teaching your children or students.
Evaluating existing knowledge
All internet users will have some existing knowledge about the internet and its use. Some students may even receive some basic digital education at school. Parents should have a basic conversation about the internet and technology with their children, to help evaluate current knowledge and behaviors.
How you choose to present digital citizenship resources and knowledge is important. For young kids, presenting information in an engaging way is important. For teens, who may rebel at the thought of a parent telling them how to behave online, you may have to change the approach. By focusing on how digital citizenship can empower users to be in charge of their own data, their own time, and their own wellbeing, parents may be able to break through the resistance they face from teens and tweens.
Digital citizenship curriculum
Many parents can gather enough information on their own to teach their kids about online safety, their digital footprint, etc. Educators can look to school districts for formal curriculum and lesson plans, or use a variety of online resources.
If you’d like a more structured curriculum, there are some paid resources available to the public, such as CyberCivics.
Elements of good digital citizenship
When learning about or teaching digital citizenship, here are some key tenets to focus on:
Understanding how the internet works is the first step in starting to think about digital citizenship. This gives students the background knowledge of the internet itself, and may also foster a sense of appreciation (or even wonder) at something that many of us take for granted.
This infographic from WebFX covers the basics.
For a more in-depth learning experience, this paid course from Study.com is specifically targeted at kids.
Understanding how to safely and proactively manage user data and privacy is absolutely essential. Explaining simple concepts, like the permanence of social media posts, is vital yet often overlooked. Internet users must understand that nearly every website, service or app they use is collecting and storing a huge amount of data automatically.
This guide to user data from Wired is a great starter resource.
Privacy & anonymity
Maintaining privacy online is a struggle. However, children must be taught about the very real privacy (and safety) concerns of internet usage, and particularly social media usage. On the surface, the internet can seem like an anonymous place - but with data tracking, user accounts tied to social media profiles, and easy tracing, it’s very rare that anything done online is actually anonymous.
This detailed privacy guide is a helpful primer on internet privacy.
For parents specifically, our privacy guide for parents gives some tips on how to teach your children online safety.
Digital literacy, sometimes called digital information literacy, is the practice of consuming information online, and judging whether it is accurate, where it originated, and what it means. In an age of misinformation and fake news, digital literacy is exceptionally important.
One of the most direct ways to teach kids about digital literacy is to supply them with good-quality sources to use for academic research. By consuming safe, accurate media, your children will start to learn what quality content looks like, making it easier to spot misinformation.
Passwords & security
Keeping accounts, personal data and passwords secure is an important part of digital security for internet users of all ages. This starts with creating and managing strong, unique passwords on all your accounts (strong passwords are important for adults, as well!). Learning which websites and topics are potentially unsafe is also important. Devices themselves must also be secured - particularly smartphones and other mobile devices.
More advanced topics that will be more relevant for teens and adults, like using VPNs, ad-blockers and more, is explained in our complete guide to online privacy and security.
Here’s something you may not think of right away: Empathy is actually key to the responsible use of technology. The anonymity and mostly text-based nature of internet communications can easily empower children to say things online that they don’t truly mean - and often, things that they would never say to someone’s face. This can lead to hurt feelings, and in more extreme cases, cyberbullying. Thus, teaching children empathy - and how it relates to internet use - is important for turning today’s students into responsible technology users with proper digital etiquette.
Bullying is a huge problem in schools, social groups and childhood in general. And while technology has enabled kids to stay connected outside of school, it’s also empowered a whole new type of bullying: cyberbullying. Introducing kids to this topic can help arm them with the tools they need to react appropriately if they are ever cyber-bullied. And a primer on this topic, combined with lessons in empathy and compassion, can help prevent kids from becoming cyber-bullies themselves.
This article from UNICEF is a good primer to the world of cyberbullying.
Maintaining a healthy use of technology is important - and surprisingly difficult. Most of the internet is designed to keep our attention for as long as possible, which can lead to addictive and unhealthy tendencies.
Social media can be particularly invasive, eating up a shocking percentage of our free time. Digital wellness is a broad concept that includes keeping technology use to an appropriate level, setting boundaries on use during certain hours, and maintaining a good balance between technology use and our own physical & mental wellbeing.
This Digital Wellness 101 guide from the University of Washington is a good primer resource for all internet users.
Social media is one of the most popular - and most pervasive - online activities. Keeping social media use in check is important for all of us, but it’s particularly important for children. Social media activity can affect kids’ body image, focus, mental health, and more. Additionally, social media accounts can be used as a hotbed of personal information for hackers and other bad actors, creating notable safety concerns for parents.
Kids Health has a good guide for parents on what to teach kids about social media use.
The digital divide
Learning about the “digital divide”, or the inequality of technological access, is an important part of being a responsible digital citizen. While many of us take internet access for granted, it’s still very much a luxury when you adopt a global perspective. While around 85% of people in the United States have internet access, only around 59% of global citizens do.
Explaining to your children or students that technology is a privilege and a luxury may help foster a sense of appreciation, and will also help shape a more empathetic world-view.
Scams & phishing
The internet is rife with scams, pyramid schemes, malware, “phishing” emails, identity theft attempts, and more. Introducing children and teens to these scams is important. Ideally, a good digital citizen can spot a scam posting or a phishing email at a glance - but doesn’t become overly paranoid or distrusting.
Scams can take hundreds of different shapes, and often take critical thinking to identify. Phishing emails are usually easier to spot - focus on the sender email address, and verify that the email is actually from the organization it’s pretending to be.
The FTC has a detailed guide on how to spot phishing scams.
Limiting “screen time”, meaning any interaction with digital technologies, cell phones and other devices, is important for all of us. Excessive screen time can cause sleep problems, addictive tendencies, mood problems, physical health effects, and more.
This is a good primer on screen time for children and teens, from the AACAP.
In many ways, being a good digital citizen is just as important as being a good citizen in general. And just as parents must teach their children to say please and thank you, and to look both ways when crossing the street, parents in the digital age must now teach children how to responsibly navigate the world of technology. Fortunately, there are many digital citizenship resources available to parents and educators.