This post was first published in 2017. It was updated in March, 2019.
Technology is changing the way we live, work, and learn. The lines between our online and offline worlds continue to merge and blur.
This is exciting! It means students can be more empowered than ever before to connect, create, grow, and make the world a better place.
Of course, as our world becomes increasingly digital, our challenges, rights, and responsibilities are changing too. Teaching students about digital citizenship and internet safety is more important than ever.
This post breaks down the theory of digital citizenship and offers practical tips that you can use in your classroom tomorrow, whatever your level of experience.
Scroll down to find a set of 11 summary posters.
How Can I Teach This Subject?
Feeling daunted by the thought of teaching students how to be safe online? There’s no need to be. You don’t need to be an expert to help your students become safe, responsible, and productive users of technology.
Adults play a crucial role in guiding young people to navigate life offline and online. You can make more of a difference than you might know!
Digital Citizenship? Internet Safety? Cyber Safety?
Not so long ago, our school “internet safety” programs were pretty narrow. We’d talk about “cyber safety” or “cyberbullying” without exploring the broad range of important concepts associated with using technology.
Because we’re now using technology differently and more immersively, there are many important concepts that need to be explored. These concepts are defined as coming under the umbrella of digital citizenship.
What is digital citizenship?
This term has evolved and become more well-known in recent years.
Many years ago Mike Ribble described 9 elements to digital citizenship, which he called, “The norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.”
ISTE now tells us that, “digital citizens are learners who use their technology-driven powers conscientiously — and with empathy — to help make the world a better place.” They divide digital citizenship into three spheres: Digital Agent, Digital Interactor, and Digital Self.
Common Sense Education describes digital citizenship simply as, “the responsible use of technology to learn, create, and participate”.
Common Sense Education’s lesson resources for digital citizenship are now divided into these six topics:
- Media balance and wellbeing
- Privacy and security
- Digital footprint and identity
- Relationships and communication
- Cyberbullying, digital drama, and hate speech
- News and media literacy
I like to think that being a “good digital citizen” is similar to being a “good citizen” in general — just with the addition of technology!
Why is digital citizenship so important?
Just like in the offline world, we want our students to be safe, secure, happy, kind, and ethical online.
Students don’t always have the life experience or brain development to navigate digital dilemmas or use technology safely and effectively. So, like many other areas of life, they need guidance from trusted adults, including teachers and family members.
Even if students are not online very much during the school day (or online on “protected platforms”), many begin connecting, sharing, creating, and viewing as soon as they step out of the classroom.
As educators, we can’t ignore this fact or waste the opportunity to tap into students’ interests and lives, and help steer them in the right direction.
How Do You Teach Digital Citizenship?
All teachers want the best for their students, but many educators feel like they don’t have the skills or confidence to include digital citizenship in their curriculum. This can be one area where teachers are afraid that their students know more than they do.
The good news is, you don’t need to be an expert. You just need to be willing to listen, talk, and learn.
A Teaching Approach Beyond “Dos and Dont’s”
We live in a digital world where we can’t avoid using technology. And why would we want to? The amazing potential to connect, learn, and create shouldn’t be avoided.
So, we obviously don’t want to either block technology or create an atmosphere of fear.
With technology use comes a responsibility to put digital citizenship education on the agenda. But what is the best approach for teaching about digital citizenship?
I don’t think providing students with a list of dos and don’ts around digital citizenship and cyber safety is powerful enough.
I do think it’s a good start and I have created a series of posters with this blog post as handy reminders to use in your classroom. However, I believe the topic has the most impact when the following four areas are covered:
- INTEGRATION: Digital citizenship is embedded into the curriculum in an ongoing and authentic way.
- STORYTELLING: Students are presented with “real-life” scenarios to consider, discuss, and learn from.
- STRATEGIES: Practical strategies are taught so students build a toolkit of actionable ideas and skills.
- COMMUNITY: Messages from parents and educators overlap and there is ongoing communication.
Let’s take a look at each layer…
1) INTEGRATION: Gain real world experience
“Okay students, put away your maths equipment; it’s time for reading.”
“Art class is over now; it’s time to head to sport.”
In the traditional curriculum, a lot of subjects are seen as separate areas. Digital citizenship is not like this.
Some standalone lessons can certainly be useful, but I strongly believe elements of digital citizenship need to be weaved into the curriculum frequently and authentically.
I have always found blogging to be an excellent way to teach students about being responsible digital citizens and members of online communities.
Of course, blogging is not the only tool that can be used to promote positive internet behaviours. Many online platforms can be used as vehicles to drive messages about digital citizenship.
This will be especially powerful when those tools or platforms are open to the public. In Ross Cooper’s discussion of closed platforms, he wisely states,
We’d be a bit hypocritical by first declaring, “Digital citizenship is important; let’s practice it!” and then saying, “Use this, because we don’t want you to experience what’s out there.”
I’ve always been an advocate for public classroom blogs but they’re not for everyone. In 2018, I published an article about the pros and cons of public blogs.
It’s not a black and white issue but it’s worth considering how you can incorporate some authentic, public experiences into your classroom program, even if it’s heavily moderated and teacher-controlled initially.
2) STORYTELLING: Discuss scenarios and real-life situations
Lecturing students about dos and don’ts isn’t enough for digital citizenship messages to have an impact.
We all know the power of storytelling. Sometimes messages can seem abstract or less important when delivered as simple statements or advice.
For example, you might hear facts and statistics about sufferings in war-torn countries that you barely pay attention to, but when you read or watch a story about real people you may feel deeply impacted. Furthermore, if you were to hear someone’s story in real life, you may feel even more moved and transformed.
Stories can stay in your memory and leave a lasting impact.
Stories, scenarios, and real-life situations involving digital dilemmas are ideal for classroom use. Students can relate and reflect on issues, and may even feel comfortable sharing their own experiences.
There are a number of places online where either videos or written scenarios are published. These can be ideal prompts for discussions, responses, reflections, or role plays.
Check out my Pinterest board for a collection of digital citizenship scenarios. Please let me know if you have anything to add!
3) STRATEGIES: Build a practical toolkit
Apart from teaching students what we should not do, we need to equip them with practical strategies so they know what to do instead.
- You can’t use any image off Google to illustrate your digital work, so we need to teach students about using Creative Commons.
- We don’t want students sharing their YAPPY (personal) information online, so we need to help them generate ideas of safer information to share with others in their online communications. Brainstorm nicknames, safe topics to talk about and so on.
- We don’t want students creating short passwords with identifiable information, so we need to help them understand what a strong passphrase is.
- We don’t want students accessing inappropriate content, so we need to teach them what to do if they come across a website that doesn’t look safe or appropriate (e.g. closing tabs, telling adults, not clicking on random links etc).
- We don’t want students to leave a negative digital footprint, so we need to teach them about creating a positive online presence. Having no digital footprint at all probably isn’t the answer.
Many of these ideas can be mini-lessons that are touched on as part of your regular curriculum.
4) COMMUNITY: Involve families
Research tells us that family participation in schooling is one of the biggest predictors of a child’s success. When schools and families work together there can be positive outcomes for all.
Digital citizenship education is no different. We need to bring parents into the conversations we are having in our classrooms.
Digital citizenship education should be a community effort. The impact will be more powerful when students have multiple trusted adults they can discuss issues with, and when they’re hearing the same messages reinforced from both home and school.
This can create a holistic approach where everyone can feel supported and involved.
LEARN MORE: Check out this post with lots of information and tips about involving parents in your digital citizenship education. There’s even a poster to distribute to parents or display on your school website.
10 Digital Citizenship and Internet Safety Tips for Students
The following is certainly not an exhaustive list but are key messages that I believe all students should be aware of.
Scroll down to find a set of 11 posters to print or embed on your blog!
1) CHECK LAWS
Many sites have age restrictions and you’re not allowed to sign up for an account if you’re not old enough (e.g. Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, Musical.ly etc.). Often these age restrictions are 13+ or 18+. An adult can help you check in the terms and conditions on the website if you’re not sure.
Most of the images, text, and videos you find online are protected by copyright unless stated otherwise. This means you can’t reuse them. For example, you can’t take an image you find off Google Images and put it in your website or project. There are some sites where you can find free content to use. Read more about that there.
Talk to your parents about what you’re doing online and let them know when you’re going on the internet.
If anything you see online makes you feel uncomfortable, worried, sad, or unsure, leave the site and talk to a trusted adult.
Don’t add people as online friends unless you know them in real life or have parent permission. Never arrange to meet an online friend without talking to a parent.
Don’t send personal information or photographs to an online friend. Never send private photos or videos of yourself to anyone (whether you know them in real life or not).
Remember, you can’t trust everything online friends tell you. Anyone can pretend to be anyone on the web.
Keep your personal information private online.
YAPPY is a useful acronym to help you remember the personal information you should not share online…
- Your full name
- Address (including your home address, email address, and school name/address)
- Phone number
- Your plans and birthday
Don’t publish this information or provide it in response to questions in emails, private messages, chat rooms, or forums. Even if you think these are private.
Protect your digital footprint and don’t publish anything online that you wouldn’t want all your friends, family, teachers, and future employers to see.
You can read more about digital footprints and explore a poster with 10 tips in this post.
You cannot believe everything you read or see online. Publishing online is easier than ever so there is a lot of inaccurate or biased information out there.
When you come across information, question who wrote the message and why it was created. Find more advice about evaluating websites here.
Know what cyberbullying is and tell someone if you think it’s happening to you or others. Cyberbullying is when someone picks on you, annoys, embarrasses, hurts, or threatens you repeatedly using technology, such as the internet or a phone.
There are things adults can do to deal with cyberbullying or inappropriate online behaviour:
- Talk to your school
- Report the abuse to the social media platform
- Don’t delete the content until it’s dealt with. Collect your evidence
- Report the behaviour to a government organisation (for example, eSafety Office in Australia)
8) ACCOUNTS, PASSWORDS, AND USERNAMES
Think carefully when choosing your username for your online accounts and email address:
- You don’t want to choose anything that identifies your full name or personal information.
- You also don’t want to choose a silly or funny username or email address. You might regret this later when you’re connecting with teachers or applying for a job.
Being a digital citizen means you’ll need to have a lot of passwords. Tempting as it is, avoid using the same password for all your accounts. You need to use a password that you can remember but is not easy to guess.
One strategy is to use a modified passphrase.
Here’s some advice on creating a passphrase I wrote for The Edublogger:
- Come up with four or more words such as mysterious triangle bingo nurse
- Avoid using personal information or well-known quotes or song lyrics (these can be easily guessed)
- Add some uppercase letters, symbols, or numbers if you wish eg. #MYsteriousTr1angle=Bin.go.nur5e
- Avoid making the passphrase too complex when you add the punctuation and numbers. It’s important that you can still remember it!
It’s extremely important that you never share passwords with others. Even your best friends!
Be polite and respectful online just as you would be offline. Always treat others the way you like to be treated.
Before posting, ask yourself:
- Would you say that to someone’s face?
- Could someone take your message the wrong way?
- How would you feel if someone said that to you?
Life is all about balance. It’s not good for our health and wellbeing to be online all the time.
Balance screen time with green time. Get outdoors, move, play, and interact face-to-face.
Don’t let life pass you by!
Posters: 10 Tips for Students
Here are 11 posters summarising the digital citizenship and internet safety tips. I hope these are useful to use in your classroom!
Click here to download a PDF copy.
A lot of these ideas come down to “think before you post”.
- Slow down and think about your choices.
- Talk to someone about your dilemma before posting or acting.
- Your initial response might not be the best one.
Useful Resources and Lesson Ideas
There are many digital citizenship resources available online for educators, parents, and students.
The following sites are particularly useful, and I have also curated more on a Pinterest board.
A very comprehensive US non-profit organization with resources, information, and advice.
They’ve recently updated their digital citizenship resources and there are lots of lesson ideas you can use with all age groups.
An Australian government site with lots of resources for educators, parents, and children. Also includes a complaints service.
The classroom resources section has helpful multimedia and lesson plans for primary and secondary school educators.
Resources such as videos, games, and presentations for children, educators, parents, and law enforcement. This is a US site run by National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The teaching resources section has some useful lesson plans, presentations, and tip sheets. You do need to register for a free account to access these.
Google’s digital citizenship program. It includes games, curriculum, and courses for teachers and students to learn about navigating the online world safely and responsibly.
Another useful discussion starter from Google for older students (or staff) is their Phishing Quiz (phishing is an attempt to trick you into giving personal information by pretending to be someone you know or recognise).
Final Thoughts: Start early, don’t stop, involve others
Digital citizenship is a topic that’s important for all ages.
Common Sense Media reports that children are accessing devices and the internet at increasingly younger ages, well before coming to school. The amount of time young people are spending on screens is also increasing to a significant amount — about 6 hours a day for tweens and 9 hours a day for teens.
Along with learning about opportunities, children need to learn about the responsibilities that come with using technology. When students develop habits and behaviours without guidance, problems are sure to occur.
My hope is that teaching students some key messages from a young age will help them navigate their way safely through the online world as they grow older.
While it’s unlikely young people will never experience an issue online, I believe it is a good aim to both minimise potential harm and ensure students feel like they always have someone to talk to.
Digital citizenship education is an ongoing process, and the work of one teacher is not enough. Ideally, we need parents, students, educators, community members, and school leaders to unite.
Most of all, we need to create a positive culture where students feel empowered to use technology safely and purposefully.
As ISTE tells us,
Respect, education and protection are still important foundations of digital citizenship, but today’s digital learners also need to understand the power they have to advocate, collaborate and drive change through technology.
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What other ideas or tips would you add?
How do you teach digital citizenship in your classroom or school?
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