Understanding Digital Citizenship for Students and Teachers

In the modern world, many aspects of our society have been successfully integrated into the digital landscape, from commerce and business to entertainment and politics. While the implications of this can be either positive or negative, what is clear is that younger generations will have to go through this cyber filter in order to take part in the world around them.

This poses a few risks: first and foremost being the attitude-changing powers that anonymity gives, particularly for younger people. If our future generations have any hopes of becoming moral, ethical, upstanding adults in the brave new world of technology, they must learn what it is to be a digital citizen.

What is a Digital Citizen?

According to researchers like Karen Mossberger and T.H. Marshall, digital citizens are people “who use the Internet regularly and effectively”. In short, digital citizens are people who use information technology, particularly the internet, to engage themselves with the world around them. Digital citizens wield technology appropriately in order to broadcast their opinions, interact with people from around the world, and present new ideas and concepts to one another.

Digital Citizens use information technology and the internet efficiently, extensively, and regularly. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of blogs, social media, online journalism, and video creation. While there is no hard and fast rule as to when exactly a person becomes a digital citizen besides constant internet activity, the accepted start of digital citizenship is when a person learns how to use technology in an ethical manner.

Notable sociologist T.H. Marshall first put forward the concept of citizenship being divided into three concepts: ascriptive hierarchy, liberalism, and republicanism. Within this framework, we can see digital citizenry as a byproduct (or, alternatively, as an effect) of the promotion civic duty, participation in political systems, and the propagation of equal opportunity. Because of technology’s innate ability to democratize access to information, and thus effectively democratizing civic participation, digital citizenship becomes an accessible, if not a necessity, option for all members of society.

kids using internet

Engaging the Youth

In recent years, teenagers, young adults, and even children as young as 6 were all reported to spend more time using the internet than watching television. While parents are rightfully concerned as to how this might affect their children’s cognitive abilities, a study by Ellen Wartella, a researcher from Northwestern University and considered to be a leading scholar in the impact of media in the development of children, found that even teenagers are concerned about the effects of digital technology might have on their physical and mental health.

Much like the 90’s, the youth are considered to be the most ideal test market for new digital content services for the next generation. First-wave social media sites like Friendster and MySpace came into prominence during the infancy stages of the internet age and made it easier for the youth to access the internet and to participate with others on the internet.

By 2010, sites like Facebook and Instagram gave the youth even more power to engage with the world around them. As of 2015, teenagers were reported to be spending almost 10 hours a day on the internet, primarily browsing social media sites. The birth of the smartphone era made the internet even easier to access, and advances in manufacturing processes made the technology even more accessible to everyone.

Because of the prevalence of the youth demographic on the internet, and partly because they adapted to the technology so easily, tons of research are spent annually to study young digital citizens in order to discern their activities, habits, fields of interest, values, and even emojis and internet slang. In America, almost 95% of youth aged 12-17 are online, with 80% of those teens being regular users of social media. It’s come to a point where social media presence is no longer an option, but rather a prerequisite to participating in online activities, and is essentially a kind of “passport” to digital citizenship.

While digital citizenship should be taught at a younger age, teenagers aged 15 and up to their young adulthood at 22 is the time when most young people will start developing a sense of their place in society. It is here where young people develop three distinct attributes: civic attachment, civic skills, and civic literacy, all of which contribute to efficient civic engagement, an attribute that will be reflected in their political views once they reach full adulthood.

As a reading-intensive medium, the internet can present many challenges to having young people of all abilities to access and participate in. Classic educational subjects like reading comprehension are necessary for young people to take full advantage of the internet. Unfortunately, this isn’t reflected in many of our government’s websites, where the content requires 11th grade reading comprehension, despite the fact that many people in our country have the comprehension level of 8th grade and below.

The first part of engaging the youth and turning them into morally-upright digital citizens is to instill in them a love for learning and the basic skills necessary to survive a digital landscape that is not only rife with content, but also websites that seek to mislead and distort truth.

Teaching Digital Citizenship to Students

In as much as educators are tasked with teaching students of all grade levels how to be good members of their community, educators must also teach students how to be positive members of the digital community. Digital citizenship lessons are a great way to integrate positive values into students early on, something they can bring to the digital world to elevate it.

Depending on the grade level, digital citizenship lesson plans should incorporate activities that address different aspects of behavior, as well as making it age and comprehension level appropriate. Here is a sample digital citizenship lesson plan for high school students and a sample digital lesson plan for middle school students.

Here are some ways that you can introduce digital citizenship concepts to your students.

Incorporate Digital Citizenship Issues in Daily Lessons

To ensure that your students retain lessons about digital citizenship, it’s important to incorporate them into your daily lesson plan. Through practice and repetition, the values and responsibilities of digital citizenship become second nature to your students, regardless of their age or grade level. With so many schools now connected to the internet, as are many aspects of our everyday life, talking about digital citizenship on a daily basis will be easier and won’t require any extra effort or time on your part.

For example, during student presentations, you can insert a few ideas regarding intellectual rights and copyrights, especially if they’re using media like YouTube videos or Facebook posts as citations. Depending on their age and comprehension level, ask them about whether or not stealing a post on Facebook can be considered plagiarism, and ask them to defend or support their position. Create discussion groups where the topic is about the rights of media creator’s vis-à-vis social media platform terms and conditions. Alternatively, for lighter activities, you can also ask them to create “modern” adaptations of historical situations, i.e., what kind of statuses would George Washington post, and what Benjamin Bache might reply to it.

To teach responsibility, respect, or empathy, ask your students to create online profiles of people from history or literature. Have them interact with people in character, and ask them to respond to comments and criticism in the same way they feel their persona would. Especially for historical figures, this would help them understand the person from entirely different perspectives, and show them that one man’s hero might be another man’s villain.

Cyberbullying
Source: Thrive Global

Review Online Comments and Discuss Them With Your Students

More and more teachers are utilizing information technology like YouTube videos in their lesson plans, whether it’s exploring a scientific theory, mathematical concepts, literary figures, or historical situations. But this can be expanded even more to teach digital citizenship to your students.

After your video is over, scroll down to the comments section and read the comments. Pick out a few negative comments and discuss them with your students. Use guide questions like, was the comment appropriate or necessary? Was the commenter being hateful? Why do you think they would comment something like this? Do you agree with their position? If yes, why? If not, why not?

Of course, ensure that the comments you choose to discuss aren’t highly inappropriate nor abusive, unless you’re confident that you can discuss it logically, and without triggering anyone in your class. However, if you feel your class is mature enough to discuss this, address it and highlight the idea that proper digital citizens do not engage in that kind of behavior.

Study Stories about Cyberbullying and Brainstorm Solutions To Them

Perhaps one of the most important digital citizenship lessons you can teach students is about cyberbullying. No matter the age, your students might have encountered cyberbullying already. It’s a dark side of this kind of democratic access to technology: it gives negative people a platform to speak as well. What’s worse, the anonymity gives negative people an outlet for their hatred.

You can start by asking your students to read a story about cyberbullying and ask them to write reflection papers that explored what they thought about the whole situation. Ask them to stand in the shoes of the victim, and ask them how they would feel if it happened to them and what they could do to stop it in the future. However, make sure you vet the story that you’ll be asking them to read to ensure that it isn’t too graphic or violent.

Especially with older students, this exercise might potentially trigger any anxieties they might have. Teaching this aspect of digital citizenship to high school students can be difficult, considering that some of them might be going through the same thing. Stories with tragic endings might upset some of the older students, but it might also be a good way to address their emotions in a healthy and accepting space, and is also a great opportunity to explore ways to avoid cyberbullying in the future. Ensure that you consult with therapists and other child development experts in figuring out the healthiest way to do this.

Regardless of age group, however, discussing cyberbullying as an unacceptable aspect of digital citizenship is necessary. Teach them empathy by asking them to reflect on what it would be like to receive that kind of abuse online, particularly if you notice that they’re beginning to be careless with how they interact with their peers online.

Digital Citizenship is Digital Responsibility

Digital Citizenship requires a degree of responsibility that many people might be aware of. Especially for young people, it’s doubly important to teach digital responsibility to students so that they can become adult digital citizens that have positive values they can use to elevate society as a whole.

This wasn’t true in the early days of social media, where it was less a bastion of free speech and knowledge and more the Wild West where people mercilessly attacked one another for the smallest infraction of thought, taste, or any other reason that could be thought of. Now, however, our society is shifting towards a digital mindset, and with that shift, a civility in cyberspace.

As an educator, it’s your responsibility to create digital citizenship lesson plans that are appropriate for all your students and something that reminds them of their role in shaping a digital future that is morally upright and ethically responsible.

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