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Of what land is a Digital Citizen a citizen?

In direct or indirect ways, children begin to learn ethical values from birth. And while families and the church are assigned the primary responsibility for a child’s ethical education, schools have traditionally had the societal charge to teach and reinforce some moral values, especially those directly related to citizenship and school behaviors. Most of the ethical issues that surround technology deal with societal and school behaviors and are an appropriate and necessary part of the school curriculum. Johnson, Developing an Ethical Compass for Worlds of LearningMultiMedia Schools, Nov/Dec 1998

I like the term "citizenship." As is obvious from the quote above, I've always seen "citizenship" as the rationale for teaching ethical behaviors and values in the public schools. Given the concern many parents and religious leaders have over public schools addressing "values" (we teahcers are mostly godless humanists, after all), teaching what is right and wrong can be tricky. But while Baptists and Bodavistas may differ a great deal about many beliefs (as may one Baptist church right down the road from another one), all faiths pretty much agree that it's a good thing to teach kids to follow the rules of one's government.

But when I first hear the term "digital citizenship," I am a little confused. Of what governance, exactly, are we supposed to be teaching kids to be good citizens of?  According to, a citizen can be defined as:

  1. a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government
    and is entitled to its protection.
  2. an inhabitant of a city or town, especially one entitled to its privileges or franchises.
  3. an inhabitant, or denizen: The deer is a citizen of our woods.

While "denizen" might be aptly applied to many a middle school student, none of these definitions of citizen work very well for me when it comes to online citizenshi[. The digital world itself is not a single entity with a codified set of rules, laws or even mores. We can't say "Internet citizen" like we'd say "U.S. Citizen" or "Chinese Citizen" or "Madrid Citizen."

What we are left with then is that we teach online citizenship as a subset of the general citizenship rules we already address in each of our communities or countries. Being a good "U.S. Citizen" means acting lawfully and ethically when online as well as off line. Thankfully, there are clear analogies between online and offline behaviors.

OK, most of you probably already had figured this out. It just takes some of us a little longer.

Image source


On a personal note, I just finished making the suggested changes to my Technology Survival Guide book to be published by Josey Bass early next year. From the forthcoming book: A Dozen Ways to Teach Ethical and Safe Technology Use.

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Reader Comments (3)

OK, I agree that digital citizenship should be an extension of good citizenship in general, but what do you think about the fact that kids often see their digital contact as different than actual contact. Saying and doing things they may not normally do in a face to face situation? I think maybe our job is to show them that their digital life is just an extension of their actual life and that they should act ethically in both? One of my main focuses last year was trying to teach the students to be ethical and in their use of media in their digital productions; what are some ways you suggest I could do that? What about safety? Do you think it's a school librarian's job to teach safety (I do)?

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShawn Hinger

@Shawn: Kids certainly behave differently online than they do in person, many accounts of online harassment abound in the news media (I detest the term "cyberbullying"). IMHO these kids act the way kids have acted for generations; they believe no one can see what they are doing, so they behave like any unsupervised kids will behave (see "Lord of the Flies" for examples). One way to address this is for teachers, librarians, and (gasp) parents to inform kids that everything they do online can be traced back to them, and that we are watching their behavior.
In our school, we closely monitor every computer terminal in our library and in our four satellite media areas, both physically by walking around and engaging kids as they work and virtually through monitoring software. We try not to pry into kids' activities unless it looks lie they are off-task. Once kids figure out that we can see what they are doing, take over their computers, and write discipline referrals for their online behavior, their citizenship online improved tremendously. For parents, I recommend a VNC control panel or similar monitoring/control software for each child's computer, or better yet, put the family computer in an open space.
We teach digital citizenship through our research lessons (cite those sources!!!), through our introductions to blogging, and through any software/resource lesson we teach throughout the school year. Respecting others' rights while protecting your own rights as a creator (Creative Commons Licensing) are integral conversations we have whenever we get the chance to teach, whether it be whole class instruction or working with groups or individuals that come to the library for help on an assignment.
I teach in a high school, so while we do not put a huge emphasis on safety, we do have to remind students to use a little bit of common sense online. Because we are aware their frontal lobes don't develop until their early twenties, we certainly discuss online safety as it relates to social networking. For example, we posted an instructional video on how to lock down your Facebook account after FB changed their default privacy settings. We'll re-post that video this fall as well.
In conclusion, I like a combination of education, monitoring, and enforcement of students' online activities. The instruction we do prepares them for the future, and the monitoring/enforcement piece helps us protect the students while they're in our building and protect the millions of dollars worth of equipment our taxpayers have made available to us and our students.

Sorry for rambling - I hope this is helpful!

-Len in Texas

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLen

Hi Shawn,

You make a great point. I do agree there are enough differences (and new conditions) that the "digital" part of citizenship needs to be specifically addressed.

Thanks for the comment,


Hi Len,

I definitely agree that problematic behaviors kids exhibit online are extensions of adolescent behaviors that have been around forever. We adults tend to forget this and then over react. (We may have all stolen an apple at one time or another as a kid, but we've never downloaded a song as a kid.) As the newness and the strangeness of the online world fades, so may we old people's reactions to it.


July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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