The importance of Digital Citizenship for 21st-century students

The importance of Digital Citizenship for 21st-century students

September 7, 2022Darri Stephens

The ever-changing digital landscape

We hear the term digital citizenship, but without having grown up in a fully digital world, many of us don’t comprehend the value or importance of this skill set. Today’s digital world can be overwhelming for the young and not–so–young. But as musician Frank Zappa said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

A graph of the exponential growth of computing

Ray Kurzweil’s theory, the Law of Accelerating Returns, illustrates how and why progress seems to be escalating exponentially. Kurzweil claims that the rate of change is such that in the next 100 years, we won’t progress 100 years, but we will progress 20,000 years. The tension comes in that he believes humans to be linear by nature, while technology is exponential. 

According to the 2021 Common Sense Census, media use in tweens and teens has grown faster since the start of the pandemic than it has over the four years prior to the pandemic. Additionally, teens 13- to 18-year-olds spend nearly an hour and a half a day using social media but have conflicted feelings about the medium.

No longer are students referred to as digital natives — those who were brought up with digital technology, never not knowing a world without the Internet. Post GenZ is Generation Alpha (born 2010-2025), born completely in the 21st century. This generation does not differentiate between what is online versus offline. Their world is digital. It is a world full of media consumption, rich with multimedia, and full of pings, dings, and buzzes. In this Age of Information, many use the analogy that we are bombarded with a firehose of content. So how can we model digital citizenship while encouraging our students to develop such foundational skills?

What is Digital Citizenship?

Common Sense Education, leaders in digital citizenship, define the field as empowering students to take control of their digital lives. What are the appropriate behaviors and accepted norms for using digital devices and participating in digital spaces? In short, how can we all be safe, responsible, and respectful online?

Many of these ideals are fundamental to being a good citizen in general, however, the digital landscape is riddled with more opportunities to misstep, and the fall is much greater since our digital footprint is public, pervasive, and often permanent. So while students may not be online at an early age, these conversations must start as early as kindergarten (or even earlier) to form good habits of mind that they can lean on when they do encounter devices and the Internet, whether at home, at school, or at a friend’s house.

The 6 core topics of digital citizenship by Common Sense Education

Elements of digital citizenship

While the field of digital citizenship is evolving as rapidly as the tech landscape itself, we know that we want students (and adults) to be fluent in the opportunities and pitfalls around:

  • Privacy & Security
  • Cyberbullying, Digital Drama, & Hate Speech
  • Digital Footprint & Identity
  • Relationships & Communication
  • News & Media Literacy
  • Media Balance & Well-Being

These topics all can be bucketed in the overlapping notions of safety, respect, and responsibility.

Why is digital citizenship important?

Safety

Digital is all about data, so it can be difficult to know where to draw the line on how, where, and when to share information. When it comes to safety, posting a photo of one’s first day of school in front of a school sign is one of those innocent missteps — now anyone can find where you go to school. We all need to be diligent about not oversharing the personal ins and outs of our daily lives as well as safeguarding our personally identifying information (PII) to avoid identity theft. Today’s digital systems are designed to track and target, so we need to teach students how to be savvy consumers. Especially when it comes to app settings. Knowing what apps are capable of makes it easier to understand how to use settings on apps to limit their reach.

Respect

Respect is one of those ideals that deserves some extra TLC and effort when it comes to any actions online. While hopefully the students you know won’t be the targets of cyberbullying and hate speech, we all need to be aware of the subtle signs. The worst is when a young child tries to shoulder the devastating effects on their own. Likewise, we need to encourage our students to stand up and help others who they think are being cyberbullied. And don’t forget about all the nuanced shades of gray when it comes to digital drama. While bullying and drama are not new, the 24/7 access perpetrators have to subversively taunt others takes the devastating effects to a whole new level.

Responsibility

This sense of respect segues into responsibility as students learn how to form open and trusting relationships with one another. One of the upsides of the Internet is how students can explore and pursue diverse interests. They can meet others who share these passions and begin to form an independent sense of self. Yet they need to understand how anyone can curate an unrealistic or even fake identity online. Students need to understand the perils of oversharing and that there is no erase button online, so it is best to pause and think before hitting a send or share button.

Nearpod's Common Sense Education DCL: Pause & Think Online Video

Spiderman’s uncle said it best when he said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Students need to hone their critical eye when it comes to media literacy and cross-reference what they are reading or watching before believing it is true. And all of this use culminates in taking a balanced approach to media consumption. As with any diet, one wants to consume quality media in a balanced manner to stay on top of their overall well-being.

So what can schools do?

School communities need to commit to weaving digital citizenship throughout the curriculum to build strong school culture. School leaders can begin by outlining clear policies around acceptable policy use, which may address device handling, student accounts, cyberbullying, social media, and cheating. Many schools have parents and the students themselves sign contracts or agreements at the beginning of the school year to make sure that all parties understand the expectations (and repercussions).

Resources to build digital citizenship skills year-round

Then the educators can focus on being proactive with digital citizenship lessons. With many cross-curricular ties, the learning objectives can be hit upon in core disciplines like ELA or Social Studies. This proactive approach again emphasizes habits of mind versus a reactive, one-time plug. Remember, with many of the obstacles students face online, they are not developmentally ready to tackle them. Children’s prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls impulsivity, decision-making, and compulsivity, isn’t fully developed until one turns 25. So it is completely natural that students will misstep, experiment, and explore as they form their own identities and relationships — but the repercussions of posting an inappropriate photo, making a crass comment, or sharing private information can haunt one for decades to come.

Teacher helping two students on their tablets

As with any muscle, students need to exercise these skill sets to develop such habits of mind. Adults and students alike need repeated and consistent instances of practice in learning about digital citizenship. Schools can be that needed safe environment to explore the concepts under the guidance of an adult who may have more foresight (developmentally at least!). Teachers can share the challenges and opportunities they have experienced to better personalize the twists and turns within our digital world.

Students can engage in rich discussions and role-playing to share their experiences, which will vary greatly depending on their access to devices and the Internet. Again, these skills ought to be woven school-wide throughout the curriculum, spiraling in a developmentally-appropriate way, in order to take a dedicated year-long approach to digital citizenship.

Nearpod’s 21st Century Readiness Program

Most agree that digital citizenship is a vital set of skills we need to develop, however, it is becoming harder and harder to dedicate time during the school day for these skills. Nearpod’s 21st Century Readiness Program makes it easy to find a year’s worth of digital citizenship content that any educator can embed into their class as the content is aligned to cross-curricular standards. The 21st Century Readiness Program contains engaging learning experiences by leveraging Nearpod’s features making lessons interactive and collaborative. The digital citizenship portion of the program is broken down into topics with assessments and activities such as:

  • Digital Citizenship curriculum from Common Sense Education
  • Evaluating Media
  • Social Media
  • Technology Applications
  • Keyboarding featuring content from Typesy
  • Coding featuring content from CodeMonkey

Digital Citizenship Week is the most popular time for schools and educators to focus on developing these skills. We’ve curated a list of our most popular digital citizenship lessons to help teachers celebrate the week and be inspired to keep the conversation going.

Nearpod digital citizenship lesson folder preview

The upside of our digital world

And while we hear the scary and disturbing stories around cyberbullying, phishing, cheating, and screen time, the opportunities are so great for our 21st-Century learners. Students today have access to literally a worldwide web of information. How can they apply, analyze, evaluate, and create with this newfound information? Students can become published writers, musicians, designers, and makers in an hour’s time while having the flexibility to iterate, redesign, and republish immediately afterward. This cyclical process illustrates the Hero’s Journey, but nowadays students can be the heroes of their own learning journeys. 

Schools can proactively work in tandem with families to establish clear expectations and provide instances of practice to help establish these habits of mind from a young age. From protecting their private information to exploring age-appropriate sites to curating a positive digital footprint for participating thoughtfully online, these digital citizenship skills set a foundation to continue to grow and thrive. Digital citizenship is no longer a nice to have, but an essential part of education to ensure their success today and in their future.

Interested in reading more about this topic? Check out this blog post: Free lessons for Digital Citizenship Week

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