We’re here to help during school closures due to COVID-19. Learn more ›
‹ Back to glossary

Everything You Need to Know About Digital Citizenship

You’re probably familiar with the idea of citizenship as it applies to the country you call home. But in today’s world, there’s another form of citizenship that may be just as important. Join us as we discuss digital citizenship, what it means, and why it’s important.

What Is Digital Citizenship?

A digital citizen is defined as anyone who regularly uses information technology. Like any other form of citizenship, a digital citizen has both rights and responsibilities in relation to their actions online. Virtual Library's digital citizenship definition is “engaging in appropriate and responsible behavior when using technology.” This applies to intentional behaviors like being helpful to others and not cyberbullying. But it also applies to unintentional behaviors, like sharing misinformation without fact-checking it. In short, good digital citizenship means behaving in a positive and helpful way online.

A digital citizen using technology in a responsible manner

The concept of citizenship involves not only laws and documentation, but also the concept of belonging to a digital community. Digital citizenship is even more closely tied to the idea of community.

Digital Responsibility

To put it simply, digital responsibility is “taking control of your digital life.” It involves four main aspects: digital distraction, online privacy, the environmental and societal impact of technology, and health as it relates to technology. With the tremendous use of technology in the classrooms, teachers play a role in developing good digital citizens.

  1. Digital distraction happens when our online activities begin to creep into our offline lives. This can be everything from texting while driving to allowing offline relationships to suffer in favor of screen time. If you find yourself unable to sit through a dinner with a close friend or loved one without looking at your phone, you may be suffering from digital distraction. In young people, this addiction can be particularly harmful to their social development. And when they learn to drive, it can be deadly.

  2. Online privacy means protecting your personal information while online. Students must learn how to set secure passwords and manage their online privacy in this increasingly connected world. Without these vital lessons, they can fall prey to identity theft or other fraud. An incident of identity theft can follow them for years without their knowledge and impact their future credit scores. Securing their online privacy also helps to prevent cyberbullying and cyberstalking.

  3. As digital citizens, it’s important that we understand the environmental and societal impact of technology. Many American consumers replace their smartphones every two years. We also upgrade or replace tablets, computers, televisions, and all sorts of other tech products. This amounts to a growing waste problem, which includes pollutants that leak out into our environment. It’s vital as a society that we understand why these devices should be recycled and how to do so when the time comes.

  4. Finally, digital citizens may find out too late that their health is being adversely affected by their use of technology. Neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and computer vision syndrome are all becoming too common in our society. Yet the psychological impacts may be even greater. We’re seeing increased anxiety and isolation, sleep disruption, and internet addiction. The best option for a healthy relationship with technology is understanding how these problems develop and how to avoid them.

Digital Literacy and Digital Citizenship

Like digital citizenship, digital literacy has to do with the online world and our understanding of it. Digital literacy is an understanding of the entire digital world, as well as the ability to navigate it. So, rather than just being able to read text, a digitally literate person also knows how to use embedded resources like links, videos, audio clips, and images. They understand how to navigate a website or app, how to get around on the internet, and how to adapt to new software and technologies. 

The truth is, students today often exhibit a higher degree of digital literacy than their teachers. That’s because they grew up in an online world, while their teachers may not have. This generation is known as “digital natives.” Think of it similarly to a native speaker of English, versus someone who has learned it as a second language. 

But what does this have to do with digital citizenship? Someone who displays a high degree of digital literacy may or may not also engage in good digital citizenship. Hackers and cyberbullies are digitally literate but lack good digital citizenship. 

The difference between digital literacy and digital citizenship has to do with the way we use our understanding of the internet. Students who understand the way the internet works but don’t have the maturity to behave in a responsible way must be taught to be good citizens of the digital world.

The Digital Divide

In today’s increasingly connected world, it’s easy to take digital access for granted. Many of us think of high-speed internet access the same way we think of basics like electricity and indoor plumbing. But according to Time Magazine, a quarter of Americans lack digital access. This disparity in access to the online world is often called the digital divide.

Technology is being integrated into more and more schools, even in areas where students may lack access to the internet at home. As we introduce these children to the digital world, it’s important to understand that they may have a different view and understanding of digital technology. It’s also vital that we support parents who may not be able to help their children with technology-related tasks. 

Parents who lack basic digital literacy may not understand the hazards and risks of the online world. They may not be equipped to help their children deal with difficult concepts like cyberbullying. Today’s educators must consider digital citizenship not only for the children in their classrooms, but also for the rest of the family.

Why Your School Should Teach Digital Citizenship

So why is teaching digital citizenship so important? It’s likely that a good number of your students are using smartphones, even in elementary schools today. This gives them an immense amount of power at their fingertips. And without a proper understanding of how to use such digital technology, they can get themselves and others in a great deal of trouble. 

One classic example is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is any form of bullying that takes place digitally. This includes sharing embarrassing photos or private information about someone else. It can also mean sending mean messages, threatening others, or spreading rumors. It’s a problem that’s rampant in our schools, with 15 percent of students in grades 9-12 reporting that they’ve been bullied online. This often leads to students feeling unsafe and withdrawn, and in some cases has even resulted in suicide

Additionally, it’s important for students to recognize that every time they engage online, they’re creating a digital footprint that could someday be used against them. Increasingly, colleges and employers are reviewing applicants’ social media before deciding on admissions or job offers. Yet few students realize how far-reaching their online posts can be. And once something is posted online, it can never be fully removed. 

Another incredibly important reason to teach digital citizenship is online safety. We all know that there are predators online looking for the vulnerable to prey upon. Pedophiles, human traffickers, and scam artists are all given access to students online every day. Unprepared kids are easy targets for these dangers.

So why teach digital citizenship? The only way to keep students safe online is to teach them how to use technology responsibly.


‹ Back to glossary