Teaching Digital Citizenship

Four areas for educators to consider – for themselves and their students.

By Susan Brooks-Young

It’s a fact of life that teachers and students make daily use of various technologies at school and at home. Unfortunately, stories abound about online misbehavior by students and adults alike — ranging from relatively benign activities, such as not properly citing online sources, to actions that can have serious and long-range negative impacts, such as cyberbullying or spreading factually untrue articles and video using social media. As a result, the need for all members of the school community to practice good digital citizenship remains a high priority.

When did we initially realize that educators ought to address online behaviors? The original version of student technology standards published by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 2000 did not use the term digital citizenship, but it did reference the need for students to learn social, legal, and ethical use of technology. The same was true of the first set of teacher standards. The mobile technologies most students and teachers use today did not exist then, and the definition of what constituted social, legal, and ethical technology use in 2000 has changed as emerging technologies with new capabilities have become more available. Subsequent versions of these standards specifically call for teaching digital citizenship skills. To help educators stay current, this column offers information and resources readers can use to update their approach to digital citizenship in the classroom.

The components of digital citizenship

What elements should now be incorporated into instruction related to digital citizenship? It’s my experience that four areas of need consistently arise: reputation, literacy, responsibility, and ethics. These terms are broad, but educators can add more specific descriptors that reflect their needs, refining the terms as the definition of digital citizenship changes.

Reputation: Most students today have digital profiles before they can walk. Medical records, photographs, and social media notifications are posted for them by the adults in their lives. In no time, children have an online presence. Then, as they grow, students actively contribute to their personal profiles and those of their friends. It’s important that students, parents, and teachers learn ways to monitor and manage this information, ensuring that they put their best foot forward when posting about themselves and others.

Literacy: Digital literacy covers a lot of territory these days. Students and teachers who are digitally literate recognize the importance of behaviors such as adhering to copyright law, citing online sources, and designing effective online searches. They also understand the need to use a critical eye when reading information posted online. For example, anyone can design a website that looks credible but is filled with misinformation. Students must be prepared to recognize and avoid these sites.

Responsibility: Internet users often write things they wouldn’t dream of uttering in face-to-face settings. This behavior is called “online disinhibition effect” and frequently manifests itself in trolling, cyberbullying, and public shaming. Students and adults easily can fall prey to this type of behavior unless they learn to avoid hiding behind the anonymity the internet offers, making conscious decisions not to engage in that sort of behavior.

Ethics: People make ethical decisions every day. Is it okay to download that online video? What about using a mobile phone to record a concert they’ve paid to attend? Or using someone else’s passwords to access their social media accounts? These questions and hundreds of others crop up daily, presenting us with opportunities to determine right from wrong and then take action. Young students’ decisions may be based on avoiding punishment, while older students think about which action will earn approval from their peers. As adults, it’s our responsibility to model ethical technology use and teach students how to identify right and wrong.

Resources for teaching digital citizenship

Organized by the four components of digital citizenship described above, here are resources educators can use to update learning activities related to digital citizenship. For your convenience, all resources are available online.


Promoting ethical behavior online. Developed by Media Smarts, a Canadian center for digital and media literacy, the My Virtual Life lesson plan is appropriate for middle-school students in the United States. The activities are designed to help students understand why it’s important to protect their own privacy and digital profiles as well as respect their friends’ privacy by being thoughtful about what they post. In addition to the lesson plan and handouts for students, four tips sheets are available for parents.

Measure your footprint. This three-question poll can be completed in a few minutes, but the follow-up information for each is guaranteed to lead to rich classroom discussions. It’s important to start having these conversations with upper elementary students before they become regular users of social media, but this activity is also appropriate for middle-school students. The second question highlights how friends and family can impact an individual’s online profile with or without that person’s permission.

Your digital footprint matters. The Internet Society is a global organization that strives to ensure that the internet is open and transparent. The site offers nine tutorials that explain why an individual’s digital footprint matters. Topics include how people create digital footprints, the economics behind “free” sites, how to determine if digital footprints are a problem, and more. The tutorials were created for adults and offer invaluable information educators can share with students. Older students may benefit from watching the tutorials, as well. Note: Flash is required to see the slides, so be sure to use a web browser that supports it.


Prove It! A Citation Scavenger Hunt: The technologies we rely on today make it very easy to copy and paste text from a website or online document into a word-processing file, making plagiarism an ongoing problem. This lesson plan from Read/Write/Think helps middle- and high-school students understand why it’s important to properly cite sources they find online, a critical step in avoiding plagiarism. All of the materials required for the lesson are provided. Teachers of upper-elementary students can also use this information to help their students become familiar with the concept of citing sources.

Five tips for teaching students how to research and filter information. Despite the amount of time students spend online, most tend to have limited skills when it comes to constructing online searches that result in accurate, reliable results. Students can begin to learn these skills while in primary grades, but they need to be reinforced and expanded throughout their elementary and secondary education. This blog post by Australian educator, Kathleen Morris, identifies five skills areas every student needs to master.

News and online resources. This Symbaloo mix was developed by the Digital Citizenship Institute and currently offers a collection of more than 40 resources, all related to being able to differentiate between fact and fiction in the news. Educators can use the resources provided here to develop learning activities for students in grades three to 12. Middle- and high-school students can use this mix as a starting point for research on their own projects related to critical thinking about news.


Anti-Cyberbullying Toolkit. Cyberbullying is not the front-burner topic it once was, but this behavior continues to plague educators, students, and parents. One challenge adults often cite is the difficulty in knowing when to intercede in a situation and when to let students sort things out on their own. Common Sense Media offers this free tool kit for educators that includes a downloadable Cyberbullying Response Flowchart, lesson plans (elementary, middle, and high school), activities for students, and resources for parents.

Visible Thinking — Thinking Routines. There’s more to behaving responsibly online than blindly following a set of prescriptive rules. The most skillful digital citizens think critically, reasoning out how they should behave in various situations that involve technology use, even when they have not been prepped with a set of rules for a specific circumstance. Visible Thinking offers a set of “thinking routines” students can apply in all kinds of situations, including those where technology plays a role.

From public shaming to public compassion. Ranging from punishments meted out by the judicial system, such as time in the public stocks, to parental or educator discipline, like standing in a corner or wearing a dunce cap, societies have used public shaming throughout history as a method for convincing people to conform to behavior expectations. Online public shaming takes this practice to new heights because, instead of being confined to a local community, this form of shaming often results in participation by a worldwide audience. Educators, parents, and students have fallen prey to this form of shaming and need to know how to avoid being victimized and also to guard against shaming someone else. This article gives a good overview of public shaming and provides a sidebar with suggestions geared to parents and educators.


Exploring the ethical considerations of technology use with your students. If you’re like many people, your mobile phone doubles as an alarm clock, camera, video recorder, calculator, or recording device — and that’s just scratching the surface! The technologies we have at our fingertips today make it very easy to create all sorts of products that were not possible even just a few years ago. These capabilities are the bright side of ubiquitous access to technology. However, there are downsides, as well. The same technologies makes it all too easy to violate copyright laws, pirate digitized media, and misuse personal data. In addition, our landfills are now teeming with toxic waste, a by-product of throwing away old devices instead of recycling them. This article provides a great starting point for broad discussions about technology and ethics. Given the ever-changing landscape of technological capabilities, these conversations need to begin in elementary school and continue throughout students’ lifetimes.

A dozen ways to teach ethical and safe technology use. Although these tips were written in 2010, Doug Johnson’s list of strategies for teaching students to use technology ethically are still quite relevant. These common-sense suggestions are applicable in grades K–12. Johnson makes three points that are particularly important:

  • Educators need to model ethical technology use for their students.
  • Students will make mistakes — the important thing is to learn from them.
  • Parents also need to be educated about ethical use of technology.

BBC’s Bitesize: Computers in society. This eight-page guide from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) offers information about multiple topics related to ethics and technology, such as piracy, copyright, and ways online activity is being monitored. Each page includes material about a specific topic, a related podcast, links to an online glossary, and a test on the information provided. Older students will be able to navigate this guide on their own, while teachers of younger students will want to read the guide themselves and present the information in age-appropriate ways.

Tried-and-true resources

Want a little more structure? There are websites that have offered organized K–12 curricula for teaching digital citizenship for many years. Two of the best known are:
Common Sense Media Scope and Sequence

In addition, there are sites that offer access to multiple lesson plans and other resources educators can use to teach about a wide range of topics related to digital citizenship, including:
Cyberwise (K–12)
Media Education Lab Library (K–12, digital and media literacy)

The notion of updating activities that teach digital citizenship doesn’t mean that educators need to abandon everything they’ve used previously. However, as you prepare for the new school year, this is a good time to review what you’ve been teaching and consider expanding your program to ensure that it supports students as they learn their way around today’s digital environments.

Image credit: Shutterstock 754137015


A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author.

Image credit: Shutterstock 754137015

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