You can do whatever you want. And so can your students. In the physical world, and the digital world. Of course, our actions have consequences. This can be a little easier to see in the physical world — for example, you can drive 30 miles over the speed limit if you want. However, you realize that if you do, you’re probably going to get a speeding ticket, and you could be a danger to others on the road. But online, things may get a little murky. It’s easy for people to hide who they are, and express opinions that they might not express to someone’s face. It’s a world that doesn’t seem quite so ‘real’. Does that mean it’s consequence-free? Of course not. What we do, share, and post online can come back at us — sometimes with permanent consequences. So yes, your students can do whatever they want. As an educator, your goal can be not just to teach them how to be good digital citizens, but to help them want to be good digital citizens.
Why worry about digital citizenship?
Because teenagers spend an average of nine hours online every day. That’s a lot of time. Not only might this worry parents and teachers, but it turns out it worries teens as well. For most of them, they agree that this is too much time. So digital citizenship is a topic they may be more interested in than you think. But there’s another layer as well. It’s not just the amount of time that’s being spent online, it’s also how it’s being spent.
When so much of a student’s life is spent in the digital world, the term ‘digital citizen’ really starts to make sense. How will they use the time they spend online? What choices will they make? Really, it’s something we all should think about. Let’s face it, technology can be addictive. You may find yourself frequently picking up your phone to check social media, or even the news. How to be a good digital citizen becomes a question all of us should want to answer. How can we keep up a good reputation, stay safe in the digital world, and in turn, help students do the same? Let’s dig in!
What is a good citizen?
Let’s look at being a good digital citizen in much the say way we would look at being a good citizen in general. What adjectives pop into your head when you think of a ‘good citizen’? Maybe it’s kind, honest, conscientious, alert, helpful. A good citizen may make us think of a person who helps out their neighbor, carries an elderly person’s groceries, holds the door open for people, cares about the community, reports crime, stands up for others, or even that kind someone who moves over on the highway to let others merge (they’re the best). What is consistent about all of these actions? A good citizen, or someone we may describe as a ‘good person,’ is someone who puts others first. This can absolutely be applied to what we do online. When discussing how to be a good digital citizen, the conversation should include more than a list of dos and don’ts, and worksheets that talk about online dangers. It should also include the importance of empathy and compassion — putting oneself in another’s shoes.
What empathy online should look like.
If students understand how their actions can affect others, and if they care about others, they’re already going to make better choices online than those who don’t. Being kind means you won’t bully or harass others, which can cause severe emotional harm. Understanding that your words deeply affect others will make you think twice before you post something unkind. No one likes being in pain — so why do that to others? However, being kind doesn’t mean students have to ignore their feelings about or reactions to things. They may have strong opinions. Learning to express opinions in a respectful way, even if they are very strong opinions, will help kids not just online but as they grow into adulthood.
Being honest online means you won’t hide who you are, or take credit for someone else’s work. Some people love to use the internet as a mask, pretending to be someone they’re not. This mask may make it easier to say things someone would never say to a person’s face. It could make it easier to gain followers. But in the long run, help your students to see that it’s cowardly to use a mask to hurt others. And pretending to be someone else is an exhausting way to make friends — plus, those friends don’t know the real you. Taking credit for someone else’s work can be easy online too, but your students should understand that this won’t get them very far. For example, let them know that it’s easy to figure out if an essay they turn in is plagiarized. And it’s not fair to the original creator to steal their content. Later in life, being in the habit of taking credit for others’ work will only disable them. Plagiarism isn’t appreciated. In fact, it’s illegal. And it’s certainly not kind. On the other hand, creating their own work will ultimately build students’ confidence.
What about being conscientious? Being conscientious means being principled. It involves thinking ahead. For teenagers, this isn’t always easy. They may be more prone to act first, and think about the consequences after. But learning to stop — even for a second — and think about the consequences of an action can save so much damage. Sharing or sending inappropriate images means that those images are out there without your control, and they can’t ever be permanently deleted. In line with this, your students should know that as far as sexting is concerned, when either person is a minor, this is a felony. Talk about long term consequences! In addition, thoughtlessly posting information that includes a student’s address, school name, or other personal information on social media could put them in danger. As brought out before, people online may not always be who they say they are. So help your students see the need to be alert, about who they share things with, and where. The digital world can be scary — but with a little thinking ahead, many of those fears and consequences can be avoided.
A helpful digital citizen will use their knowledge for good. There are so many good resources for learning and creating online. A student can use these to help others — whether that’s by sharing what they’ve learned or created, or teaching others. They can help those who understand the digital world a little less — like, for example, you. Let’s face it, the kids in your classroom know what more about the internet, apps, and devices than you do. You can teach them how to make good choices online, but you probably can’t teach them how things work. So, ask them to teach you!
The bottom line.
When your students become aware how their actions affect others, and how far-reaching the consequences will be, they will be better equipped to make the right decisions. For many adults, navigating the digital world might be the scary part. But for students, protecting their reputation and mental and emotional health online is the challenge. Check out some of the resources below to better understand digital citizenship, and to see how you can help your students learn more about it as well. We all have decisions to make. We can do whatever we want. Choosing to do good is up to each individual — and your students have the power to do so.