How Can Students Learn to be Good Digital Citizens?

January 23, 2019

Each and every one of us has some sort of digital interaction. While cellphones were bulky and owned by the privileged in the past, today it’s very hard to find anyone without a smartphone in their pocket.

Like it or not, more and more people are interacting digitally. Whether it’s with each other, or with news, media, data, and other online communities. This is especially common among students today.

What is digital citizenship?

It’s been debated for a while now. defines it as “the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use”. However, while self-monitored digital interaction addresses the individual user, it still doesn’t cover the content itself. If we look at ISTE standards, they offer an alternative definition: “The quality of habits, actions, and consumption patterns that impact the ecology of digital content and communities.”

Who is considered a digital citizen?

In all likelihood, all of us. In this digital age, children and students are born as digital citizens. Generally speaking, they know how to operate a tablet or smartphone better than we do, and they’re grasping new developments way faster than we can hope to catch up. This interaction with technology can be either beneficial or detrimental. Teaching students how to effectively use technology, both practically and ethically, will tip the scales to their benefit in making them good digital citizens.

Key elements of a good digital citizen:

1 - Digital Access
It goes without saying, students cannot be considered digital citizens if they don’t have access to technology. In today’s world, youth and technology seem inseparable, but it’s important not to forget that there are many areas of the world where technology isn’t readily available. Therefore, it’s important to help our students understand that to grow as a society, advocating equal digital access for everyone is a MUST.

2 - Digital Communication
While main forms of communication of the 19th century were limited to postcards and letters, telegraph and telephone (late 19th century), the 21st century brought the entire world closer together through digital technology. What started as communication via e-mails and phone calls soon developed into live chats and video conferences. Today, you can literally communicate with anyone no matter where you are. However, too much connectedness may have some drawbacks:

  • Social skills are diminishing due to the rise in texting addiction.
  • Second-hand living, basically experiencing everything life has to offer through a digital screen instead of actually living it.
  • Students may be subject to different levels of inappropriate content and obscenity, even engaging in it themselves.

Our job as educators is to show our students how to properly consume and use digital communication while guiding them to make good responsible choices.

3 - Digital Etiquette
Recognizing inappropriate behavior and abstaining from it is the only way forward to good digital citizenship. While many of these behaviors go unreported, it’s important to teach students “netiquette”, or etiquette on the net, and how to conduct themselves responsibly.

4 - Digital Law and Rights
Just like stealing is bad and illegal in real life, it’s the same in the digital world. While we all have the right to privacy and freedom of speech, those rights also come with responsibility. Hacking, pirating, plagiarizing, and destroying other people’s digital data and work is not only unethical, but also illegal. Something every student should be highly aware of.

5 - Digital Health
As mentioned above, there are setbacks for too much digital interaction and communication. Students might succumb to any number of them, and even develop some bad habits when it comes to using technology. Teaching them the potential dangers of technology and how to break any developed bad habits is essential in shaping them into good digital citizens.

6 - Digital Safety and Security
Not everyone is a good digital citizen, there are many out there who don’t care about ethics, responsibility, or laws. This is why students need to be educated on how to protect themselves, their work, their digital property, and especially their online identity. Learning how to set up software to protect themselves and knowing what information to provide online is crucial for the safety of their digital data and online identity.

These are the essential elements for helping students become good digital citizens. Of course, there are plenty more. includes a few more descriptors such as:

  • Developing habits for lifelong learning
  • Never bullying and communicating with empathy
  • Being proactive about your physical and mental health

Keep in mind, digital citizenship is much more than online safety and decorum or a list of dos and don’ts. It’s about turning digital users, starting with our students, into thoughtful, empathetic digital citizens who can tackle any issue that’s concerned with digital integration and use.

In short, according to Richard Culatta, CEO of ISTE, digital citizenship “is about using technology to make your community better.” Engaging with people who have different beliefs, shaping and reshaping public policy, and especially recognizing the validity of online sources, these are the most important aspects of digital citizenship.

At what age should students be taught digital citizenship?

This is a tricky question, as technology has become ever more embraced, especially by young students. Nowadays, the older students get, the more crucial it becomes to teach them good digital citizenship skills.

These elements can be taught intermittently with certain attributes focused on different age groups. For example, for first and second graders, it’s important to introduce to them how to use technology and the internet safely, as well as teaching them about cyberbullying and how to treat others online.

For teenagers 13 and above, it becomes more important to familiarize them with the concept of digital footprints, vetting online sources, appropriate usage, as well as guidelines for appropriate time spent online.

For schools and educators, these elements are crucial to every student. Teaching the important qualities of digital citizenship may help them translate those behaviors outside of the class and into society. In a world that’s overflowing with digital content and information, it is these citizenship qualities that we will guide them through and enable them to shape a much better community.

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