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The Importance of Promoting Digital Citizenship for Students

A smiling person sits on a wall in an urban setting looking at a smartphone screen.

With school closures and isolation from their peers, many students depend now more than ever on mobile devices and computers for learning and socializing. Digital technology may offer many advantages, but it also poses risks. That’s why educators support digital citizenship for students.

As digital technology grows more sophisticated, so do cyberthreats. To keep up, students need to learn about digital citizenship: the use of digital devices and the internet in responsible and productive ways.

Digital Literacy

Today, people use technology to manage their bank accounts, stay in touch with friends, and keep up with work obligations. To succeed in a world dominated by technology, students must become digitally literate: They must be able to efficiently and securely use technology, interactive digital tools, and search networks.

For example, when students read online, they access embedded hyperlinks and videos. When they write a paper, they use search engines. Digitally literate students know how to not only find digital content but also distinguish it so that they can use it appropriately. This can mean, for example, differentiating sponsored content from a legitimate news article.

Almost every career involves using digital technology, so teaching students digital literacy prepares them for their future as well.

Digital Etiquette

Digital etiquette, sometimes called netiquette, refers to treating others online with respect. Thus, cyberbullying is never appropriate. Students should learn basic rules that guide their behavior and help make the online world a decent place for themselves and others.

Netiquette rules vary according to the online environment. For example, in an online classroom, students learn to carefully review their writing before posting it. They also learn to avoid abbreviations they may use when texting and stay on topic during discussions, just as they would in a physical classroom.

On social media platforms, students should follow the same rules of decorum and politeness expected of them in face-to-face encounters. This includes avoiding offensive language, as well as respecting people’s privacy by not forwarding information they don’t have permission to share. Educators must remind students that their use of technology affects others—a living, breathing person is at the receiving end of their texts, posts, and tweets.

Digital Health

Technology has changed how many people communicate and spend their time. Tweens spend almost five hours a day looking at screens, and teens spend more than seven, according to a report from Common Sense. That time doesn’t include screen time for school.

Balancing one’s use of technology with other aspects of life requires thoughtful consideration. How much time should students spend using digital devices? What should they use technology for? What do healthy interactions with technology look like?

Digital health means making choices about how to best interact with technology, so it doesn’t negatively affect important aspects of people’s lives, such as their physical activity, mental health, and sleep.

Students need support in building healthy relationships with technology. Educators can teach students about healthy digital technology habits and help them recognize how technology can potentially negatively affect their well-being. For example, teachers can engage their students in discussions about how to use digital tools to pursue personal goals, such as fitness. They may also discuss the dangers of excessive screen time and techniques students can use to limit the distractions that technology can create.

Digital Security

The digital world poses many types of dangers to students. In addition to learning about security issues related to identity theft, hacking, scams, and viruses, students need to learn about their digital footprints. Digital footprints can leave students vulnerable if they don’t have a clear set of guidelines about what to share.

Students may give out their locations, birthdates, telephone numbers, or other personal information that can put them in danger. They may also overshare about the daily activities of their lives, their private feelings, or inappropriate photos without fully appreciating the potential consequences of doing so.

Teaching digital citizenship to students involves helping them understand the permanence of their digital footprints and how to avoid harming themselves or others with what they post online. They can be encouraged to selectively share on social media. Teaching digital citizenship also involves training students to look out for online scams and malware.

This means educating students about:

  • Effective internet safety practices, such as creating strong passwords and not opening files from unknown senders

  • How to use privacy settings (controls that allow them to determine the use and storage of their information)

Examples of Lessons on Digital Citizenship for Students

Lessons about digital citizenship vary according to grade level. Educators must consider which topics to address and how to approach them based on a student’s age. For example, lessons for younger students in elementary school may start with a focus on safety. Teachers may introduce topics such as cyberbullying to older elementary students.

In higher grade levels, educators tackle more complex topics.

Digital Security for First Graders

Young students need to understand that just like in the real world, they need to stay safe online. Educators can teach young students how to choose age-appropriate websites and apps by using the familiar concept of a stoplight.

First, teachers can help students divide websites and apps into three categories:

  • Green (safe websites and apps)
  • Yellow (websites and apps they’re unsure of)
  • Red (websites and apps not meant for children their age)

For each type of website, educators should give students examples of what they might find there. For example, on green websites and apps, students might find fun pictures and activities for kids, while on red websites and apps students may see pictures that look like they’re for adults or places to chat with strangers.

After identifying types of websites and apps, educators can invite students to share green and yellow websites and apps that they’ve visited with the class and each other. Educators can also ask students if they’ve visited a red website and how they knew it was red. Then, students should learn how to respond to yellow and red websites and apps.

To reinforce the lesson’s concepts, educators can introduce a game in which students are given descriptions of websites, and they have to determine if they classify as green, yellow, or red. Finally, to wrap up, educators can invite students to reflect on what they should do if they find themselves at a red website by writing and drawing a picture.

Digital Health for Eleventh Graders

High school students need nuanced lessons that ask them to think deeply about their relationship to technology. Teaching these students to recognize how technology is designed to “lock in” their attention—making some people feel “addicted”—gives students a chance to better understand the role technology plays in their lives. This offers a solid starting point for making intentional choices about technology use.

Educators can begin by having students consider if they’re addicted to their devices. Using a T-chart headed “Addicted/Not Addicted,” students list behaviors and share them with the class.

Next, students can read and analyze articles that argue for and against the idea that people are addicted to their devices. Using graphic organizers, students track the evidence presented in each article. Then, they share their own opinions on the issue in small groups before joining a larger class discussion exploring the issue.

Explore How Educators Prepare Students to Become Good Digital Citizens

Today, educators must consider how to prepare their students to function in a world increasingly dominated by technology. A curriculum focused on digital citizenship provides students with invaluable knowledge about how to stay safe and thrive.

Learn more about how today’s digital landscape is impacting communities and culture by watching Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss’ interview for American University’s Big Ideas in Education speaker series.

Explore how American University’s Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership trains educators to promote digital citizenship for students.

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