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How to Teach Digital Citizenship

As an education speaker, you may have heard me discuss the topic of digital citizenship quite frequently. Digital citizenship is a concept pioneered by organizations like the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) in which parents, schools and other technology leaders recommend focusing energy on preparing students and kids for a tech-centric society by teaching them about appropriate and positive ways to use technology, as opposed to focusing on the potential negative outcomes of technology.

So instead of spending all of our time teaching kids about cyberbullies and online predators, we might rather focus on teaching a curriculum of digital citizenship in which kids learn the right ways to act online and use the Internet for positive causes, such as charity.

For some issues, such as drugs or smoking, it’s easy to see the clear goal and message for kids. Telling kids not do drugs or smoke cigarettes are very tangible, measurable and attainable goals. But with digital citizenship, even for an education speaker, saying that you need to be good online is a bit more ephemeral.

Happily, for those looking for advice on how to teach kids digital citizenship or immediately apply its principles, here are a five tips to help the next generation learn to thrive online.

Do Unto Others…

Remember the golden rule, and apply it to your online interactions, especially on social networking sites. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated, with respect, dignity and extra attention to how thoughts and actions will affect others. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes is a great way to make sure you’re practicing positive digital citizenship.

The Grandma Rule

Before any post, message, or share, consider whether or not you’d want your grandma to see it.  Because essentially, when you post something to a social network or send it directly to a friend, you’ve lost all control and it’s theoretically possible it could make it into grandma’s hands. So make sure everything you do or think passes the grandma test and it will likely keep kids from sharing or doing activities they otherwise shouldn’t be.

Spread Heart, Not Hurt

With a hat tip to Yahoo! Safely and Common Sense for the perfect turn of a phrase, we love the idea of a simple way for kids to remember to spread and embrace positive messages, and avoid engaging in negative behavior. Spread positive messages and watch your social network connections and online enjoyment grow, and learn how to appropriately deal with any negative behavior you do see online.

Remember the Three Ps of Information – All the information you share is permanent, public and powerful. Information is permanent because once you post it, it can live online forever, even if you delete it off your profile. It’s also public because everyone can potentially see it. And of course it’s powerful, as words and online actions can have a deep and lasting impact, so use them for good.

So what are specific ways we as education speakers, parents or teachers help our children understand the ins and outs of being a good cybercitizen? Following are actionable activities, exercises, and questions for you to use to help your family understand the concepts. Think of this workbook as a quick how-to guide for your teaching your family about digital citizenship.

Discussion Topics:

What does digital citizenship mean to you?

Digital Citizenship can be a broad term with a number of meanings. Talk to kids about what it means it to them and how it will affect their actions online.

Can you be anonymous on the Internet?

While tweens and teens struggle so much in real life to forge their own identity, much of their online life must be spent keeping certain details private. But how much is really private, and what’s really out there? Take the time to Google your kids and yourself to show them what’s out there and just how much someone can learn.

Information permanence and online access

It’s easy to forget how public the Internet can be when you’re accessing it from your handheld device or in the middle of your family’s living room working on a computer.  But things that are posted on the Internet can stick around forever and be impossible to clean up.  It’s a lot like a tattoo – it may seem like a good idea at the time (or even a bad idea), but no matter what you’ll live with the consequences the rest of your life.

When is online life like real-life? When is it different?

Although much is made about the difference between online life and real-life, especially when it comes to sharing personal information, the reality is that many of the social mores and customs that apply to real-life interactions are best applied online. You’d never say bad things behind someone else’s back for example, so don’t do it online. If you saw another kid being bullied or beat up, you’d tell a grown-up about it, so do the same if you’re online. The roots of digital citizenship are positive real-life interactions and activities that can and should be translated to the virtual world.


A number of online games are also designed to be educational and fun for kids in teaching them ways to be good citizens online.

NetSmartzKids is aimed at elementary-aged kids, using cartoonish, colorful characters to star in games and videos teaching concepts of digital citizenship.

Professor Garfield’s Learning Lab teaches kids lessons about cyberbullying, self-esteem, peer pressure and more.

Digizen offers a game to help kids learn about cyberbullying and how to support those that are victims of it.

Role-playing is also important as well. Both before and after playing these games, ask kids what they would do in certain situations, or what the best way to share certain information is, if at all.


There are also a number of resources available for parents and teachers online, such as a free curriculum for elementary, middle and high schools at Common Sense Media .  Although it was designed for schools, it’s great for parents to check out as well.

The Family Online Safety Institute’s A Platform for Good is designed to highlight Digital Citizenship and encourage it by offering kids rewards. With sections for parents, teachers and teens, it’s a must visit for all families online.

Connect Safely is the net’s most trusted resource for all things pertaining to online safety, featuring extensive tips, articles and links to other Digital Citizenship resources.

One of the first sites to focus on the issue was DigitalCitizenship.net, providing an overview of Digital Citizenship, with links to resources and description of the Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship. Great for stimulating discussions.

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