Young people today spend a significant portion of their lives online, with U.S. teenagers clocking in nearly nine hours a day on the internet (excluding time for homework). While the online realm is where many young people feel free to be themselves, there's a flip side. The online scene is always shifting, and it's not always clear to kids and teens how to handle themselves online or use tech in a positive and safe way.
In this digital age, the way young people act online can sometimes differ from their face-to-face behavior and the rules of safety aren't as clear. And, because online life is constantly changing, kids and teens don’t always know how they should conduct themselves online or how they can use technology to engage with society in a positive way. That’s where the concept of digital citizenship steps in, emphasizing not only being a good online neighbor but also the crucial aspect of digital safety. Understanding the rights and responsibilities that come with being part of the online world, especially when it comes to digital safety, is key.
In this article, we'll explore what it means to be a "digital citizen" and why it's important for kids and teens to know how to navigate the sometimes-tricky waters of the internet while ensuring their digital safety.
What is Digital Citizenship?
The idea of digital citizenship is a flexible concept used to describe how people today do not simply use the internet as a reference tool but live their lives through it and carry out a significant percentage of their interactions with society within a digital environment.
The Council of Europe defines a digital citizen as “someone who, through the development of a broad range of competences, is able to actively, positively and responsibly engage in both on- and offline communities, whether local, national, or global.” The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), meanwhile, says a digital citizen is someone who sees “possibilities instead of problems, and opportunities instead of risks as they curate a positive and effective digital footprint.”
Because young people spend so much of their time online, it is vital that they acquire the skills to navigate the internet safely, ethically, and effectively. This importance is reflected in changing approaches taken by educators, with around 60 percent of U.S. K–12 teachers using a digital citizenship curriculum or resource in the classroom.
Citizenship in the broadest sense entails both rights (safety, freedom, etc.) and duties (adherence to laws, taxes, etc.), and digital citizenship is no different. A digital citizenship curriculum should therefore teach students how to navigate the internet in a way that benefits both themselves and their fellow citizens.
Digital Literacy in the Classroom
All school-age kids today are what we might call digital natives. They have been raised online, giving them a foundational understanding of technologies that their parents and teachers may not have had themselves.
This experience gives many young people a high level of digital literacy, which is defined by UNESCO as “the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate, and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies.” But students can further improve their digital literacy in the classroom, acquiring new skills and competences that will enable them to connect with others and engage in a range of useful tasks online.
A distinction can be drawn between digital literacy and information literacy. Knowing how to navigate digital applications and workflows does not automatically equip young people with the skills to analyze the huge amount of information they encounter on a daily basis. Teachers therefore have a responsibility to show their students how to critically assess online content and discern between reliable and unreliable sources.
Online Safety and Responsibility
One of the biggest concerns for teachers and parents is ensuring that their students and kids are safe when using the internet. The web is a treasure trove of information, but it also contains unsafe content and potential privacy violations.
Teaching digital citizenship is important because it can help students learn how to use the internet safely:
- Being mindful of their digital footprint involves understanding that every online interaction, from clicks and "likes" to website visits and social media activity, may be traceable by third parties, contributing to a comprehensive digital presence.
- Understanding cybersecurity and the importance of not giving away sensitive information to untrustworthy sites or internet users
- Preparing to encounter disagreement on the internet on comment sections, message boards, and social media
- Understanding and preventing cyberbullying, which 59% of U.S. teens say they have experienced in some form
Overall, it is important that students learn how to keep themselves safe while also ensuring the safety of others by adhering to an ethical code of online conduct. The classroom is the perfect place for students to learn this conduct.
Digital Citizenship and Job Market Readiness
Most aspects of digital citizenship education can be applied in the post-education life of a student. Digital skills are vital in many forms of work, from the software familiarity required for most office jobs, to critical analysis of data sources for research positions, to cybersecurity skills required in IT roles. Learning about copyright and intellectual property is also important for future workers, as instances of online plagiarism can have more severe consequences in the world of work than with, for example, school homework.
Being an effective digital citizen can also help students enter the job market in other, more subtle ways. For example, a student being aware of their digital footprint can help them ensure they do not have any embarrassing or potentially compromising information about themselves online that a potential employer might be able to access during the recruitment process.
Teaching Digital Citizenship in STEM
Digital citizenship can seem like an overwhelming topic for educators, especially since today’s students can have a greater aptitude for technology than their teachers. Fortunately, there are several online resources that teachers can use to integrate the principles of digital citizenship into their lesson plans.
A great place to start for teachers is Sphero’s own suite of award-winning cybersecurity lessons, which ties in with key online safety principles and covers some of the most important aspects of digital citizenship. Other useful resources can be found in the Be Internet Awesome curriculum, developed jointly by Google, the Net Safety Collaborative, and the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, and digital citizenship curricula from Common Sense Media and iMature EdTech.
Teachers can teach digital citizenship concepts in a variety of ways. Activities could include a role play session where students practice how to engage with one another politely and constructively in an online environment, designing a poster or brochure relating to data privacy and online safety, or a challenge in which students must assess certain online sources in terms of their reliability.