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good digital citizenship for kids

Raising Good Digital Citizens

Increasingly, our lives are lived online. It is a relatively new way of interacting that continues to evolve at a startling rate, yet if one thing is clear, it is that the old rules of interaction still apply. What is less clear is how. We teach our children to be kind, careful and respectful in real life – lessons made easier by the physical presence and reactions of people around us. When the physical context is missing, these lessons aren’t as easily applied – yet the consequences of their absence are as real online and off. For this reason, parenting needs to include not only an effort to shape children into good citizens, but a separate (if related) effort to guide them into being good digital citizens.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) defines Digital Citizens as kids who “recognize the rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of living, learning, and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal, and ethical.” Instilling good digital citizenship starts with helping children to understand and cultivate a digital identity.

Every action in the digital world adds up to create the digital identity of each individual student. As they browse online, they leave footprints on various websites. These footprints include online actions like shares, comments, uploads, up-votes, and likes. This information is used by these websites to identify and track them. Children also develop accounts on virtual networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, and others, which all have similar mechanisms to identify and track users’ participation on these platforms and their engagement with friends in casual and intimate conversations. It is important we help children understand the permanence of their actions in these environments, and how that record can be used for or against them.

Once they understand, they can ask themselves questions that help develop their own filters – What does a post, image, video or message say about them? Would they be comfortable if a family member or a future employer saw it? If the answer is no, does it still seem like a good idea to share it? These questions will help kids take control of their digital identities and be thoughtful about what they post online.

From there, parents can help children understand that the ethical dilemmas they face in the real world are similar to the ethical conundrums they may face online – to respect privacy, or not; to gossip, or not; to trust strangers, or not; to take credit for another’s work, or not; etc. What is right and wrong doesn’t change between the physical and the virtual world. In virtual environments, respecting privacy is one of the most important digital ethics, and children need to ensure their use of technology does not come at the cost of others.

A strong understanding of digital identity and ethics sets children up for the final stage of good digital citizenship: digital criticism. We all know what critical thinking is in the real world: “skillful, responsible thinking that is conducive to good judgment because it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria and is self-correcting,” according to the education philosopher Matthew Lipman. It is no less true in the digital world, but it is perhaps more difficult to do there.

In the real world, we use several filters to help us engage in conversations in a thoughtful, reasonable and respectful manner. We implicitly ask ourselves questions like, “Who are we speaking to?” “What are we speaking about?” “How much do I really know about this topic?” “Where did I hear about this topic last?” and “Where is this person coming from?” Thus, physical context becomes important in exercising critical thought because we are more sensitive and empathetic when we have another human being in front of us.

As children engage in conversations online, it is important, but a challenge, to continue using these filters. Lack of the filters results in bullying behavior. Teach them to continue asking the same questions – explicitly – as they have conversations in chatrooms, read or view content, and leave comments online.

These conversations are important. “The ways in which young people come to shape their own uses of technology reflect above all what parents do, and do not do, in terms of supporting, regulating and attempting to steer their technology uses,” wrote Chris Davies, PhD, and Rebecca Eynon, PhD, of the University of Oxford, in 2012.

How to instill good digital citizenship in kids

Parents often wonder how they can play a more practical role in developing their children’s responsible use of technology. They can develop good digital citizenship in their children by:

  • Modelling the behaviour of a good digital citizen that they would like to see their children emulate.
  • Being aware of children’s online environment and knowing the sites and applications their kids spend time on.
  • Understanding the various kinds of devices that children use to access the Internet (these may include smartphones, gaming devices, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers) and knowing how to keep these devices secure.
  • Reviewing and discussing with children the privacy settings on various digital platforms to ensure adequate protection – but also making sure children understand the permanent nature of the Internet, where even protected information is never completely safe or deleted.
  • Developing and communicating to children an understanding of what is appropriate, inappropriate, or even illegal when posting or accessing information on the Internet. (For instance, the fact that a child is a minor may or may not protect them from legal repercussions related to online activity.)

Parents can also remind children to:

  • Respect the personal information of others and to understand others share the same rights and responsibilities as fellowonline citizens.
  • Avoid providing sensitive information online, such as financial information, GPS location, etc. In instances when this information is required, (as in, for a purchase) teach them what kind of site security measures to look for.

Technology gives children access to amazing opportunities to engage and thrive in a connected, digital world, to amplify and to become agents of their own learning. Helping them to become good digital citizens ensures they have the tools to do so – and support others in doing so — safely and effectively.

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