Digital Citizenship and How to Teach It

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When teachers think about 21st-Century education, very few focus on one of the fastest-growing topics, digital citizenship.  In the past two years, educators have put more electronics into the hands of their students than ever before.  The CARES Act has made it possible for our classrooms to enter the digital age, but are the students ready?  It is our responsibility to prepare our students for the new educational setting.  Citizenship is a trait that is regularly taught in school.  It is even a Social Studies standard in most states.  EDGEucating is here to help you move with the times and extend those citizenship standards to the digital setting.

In this article, I will answer the following questions:

  1. What is digital citizenship?
  2. What are the main topics of digital citizenship?
  3. How can you teach digital citizenship?

What is digital citizenship?

You and your students are already digital citizens.  There are daily activities that are done today that you were only introduced to in the past decade, especially in your classroom.  Right now, you are reading this article on a computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.  Every day, you are texting or checking your email.  Many of our day-to-day activities are being completed via the internet, checking our bank accounts, making purchases, and contacting friends.

Our students are no different.  They may not be checking their bank account, but playing video games can be an international event held in your students’ bedrooms.  Your students are posting videos on platforms like Snapchat and TikTok that are being broadcast to hundreds of people each day.  Social media is the norm now and being anonymous is a privilege that many people take advantage of on those platforms.

Digital citizenship is how we must behave when interacting with others on apps, platforms, and devices.  Good digital citizens support each other, show empathy to one another, and make quality connections with other people.  Bad digital citizens engage in cyberbullying, use social media irresponsibly, and generally do not know how to use the internet safely.  It is an educator’s responsibility to teach good digital citizenship to their students and it is a task that we can all undertake.

What are the main topics of digital citizenship and how to teach them?

Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is defined by as the ability and knowledge needed to learn and teach using technology tools.  Educators usually think of reading and writing as literacy skills, but when it comes to technology, everyone’s skill level is different according to their experience.  Students may be able to beat their new video game in a single day or be able to duet with their favorite TikTok video with ease.  On the other hand, they are unsure of how to do quality research using the internet, and creating a clear presentation is out of reach.  Each digital tool comes with its own set of skills and we cannot assume that students know how to use them all, just because they are proficient in using their gaming system or phone.

The tools that students will use in the classroom are not necessarily items that they use at home.  They will need instruction on the use of the tools that you will use most in the classroom.  In my experience, I have seen students try to use desktop monitors like a touchscreen, and using the mouse was completely foreign.  Lessons involving your classroom tools should begin with how to use the tool.  Area schools are using Chromebooks to access Google Classroom.  These are definitely tools that the average student did not use in their home pre-Covid.  Educators were thrown into a system of online instruction.  Learning about the tools was the first step for the educators and the students.  We need to continue the instruction virtually and in person.

Digital Safety

At an early age, we teach our students about stranger danger.  We tell them to avoid people they do not know.  Then they are handed a tablet and strangers from around the world are given access to our children.  By typing a few keywords into a search bar, they can access topics and images that are inappropriate.  Students must be instructed to understand that strangers aren’t just physical people that they meet in real life.  Strangers are all of the people of the world outside of their friends and family groups.

We must be direct with our students.  Starting with their classmates, we can explain how we can determine who is a stranger and who is not.  As they research, explain the need to pause and reread what they typed before pressing enter.  It is important to be direct in all explanations and discussions.  Children need to understand that not everyone is honest on the internet.  They need to be instructed about the possibility that the people they are talking to may not be who they think they are.


As students begin working with others on the internet they need further instruction on interaction through written communication.  The majority of interactions students will have with others is through text.  Written words lack emotion and the physical cues that come with face-to-face interactions; therefore, internet users can make incorrect judgments of what they read and react incorrectly to statements made online.  In the worst cases, this develops into cyberbullying and that has been a growing problem.

Teaching empathy comes with enormous amounts of discussion.  Reading quality books and discussing the characters is the easiest way to focus on empathy.  Talking about feelings is difficult for children, but having characters to identify with makes the discussion much easier. Once students are comfortable discussing the characters’ feelings, they can begin to make connections between the characters and themselves.  Below are some online resources to help teach empathy.

Teaching Tolerance seeks to improve the world by informing today’s developing minds about compassion, acceptance, and empathy. That’s why they have a great lesson for middle schoolers called Developing Empathy.  In this lesson plan, students will learn about empathy, practice it with one another, and incorporate empathy ideas like active listening.  They’ll learn vocabulary, pair up with partners, and discuss their feelings on different ideas you pitch.  This lesson plan is brief compared to some of the others on our list, but it’s a great starting point for students to understand empathy and how to use it.

Empathy in Your Classroom is a collection of lesson ideas from the Teachers Guild, published via Oakland University.  In it, you’ll find 11 concepts for empathy lessons complete with grade levels, instructions, and links to learn more.  These lessons have all been developed and refined by the teachers who submitted them to the Teachers Guild, making them excellent starting places if you’re teaching empathy for the first time.  Regardless, with such a wide variety of perspectives and ideas, you’re sure to find at least one lesson in this document that will fit into your curriculum.

Be Fearless, Be Kind is a collaborative campaign between Hasbro and Ashoka that focuses on the social life aspect of empathy.  In this document, the publishers discuss a variety of helpful resources and measurements that you can use to help students understand empathy at different points.  One of these resources is a scale represented as a staircase that shows how students can practice and build upon empathy as a skill.  Another is a fun chart that lets students pick out how they feel when they’re feeling it.  They’ll learn about self-control, responsiveness, relationship-building, and how to become what the publishers call a “changemaker.”  Essentially, this collaborative project helps students understand empathy from just about every angle.  With this information as your base, you may be able to develop an entire quarter or semester of an empathy curriculum!

Edutopia has a series of four strategies and behaviors that you can use in the classroom to teach empathy.

These strategies include:

  1. Modeling: Being the role model of the classroom for empathy
  2. Point of view: Showing how different ideas look from different perspectives
  3. Literature: Illustrating point of view through well-known stories
  4. Listening: Following the HEAR steps to absorb what someone says

Altogether, this resource is less concerned with what you teach and more concerned with how you teach it.  The key is to be the role model for empathy in this scenario, empowering you to lead by example and give your students an aspiration for their own empathic behavior.

Digital Wellness

Teaching your students that they need to spend a reasonable amount of time online will encourage digital wellness.  Knowing when to take a break from the screen needs to be taught directly.  Too much screen time can affect memory, vision, and brain development.  Teach moderation and the importance of exercise.  The best way to teach digital wellness in the classroom is to make sure you are planning lessons and activities that involve and incorporate technology but expand your lessons to include movement, conversation, and writing.

EDGEucating has created student documents to assist you in your digital citizenship lessons.  Click the picture to download.

digital student document

In conclusion

Digital citizenship is a vast topic that is important to students, teachers, administrators, and parents.  The digital age has come with new challenges that must be addressed.  As we navigate these new waters, we all need to keep these new skills in mind to prepare our students and ourselves for the days to come.  For more information about our new 21st-Century education system, check out our article 5 AI Trends Changing Education in 2022 or our video Top 5 K-12 EdTech Trends of 2022.

About the Author: Alicia Verweij

Alicia is a seasoned educator that is passionate about teaching children to think critically, problem-solve, and function in an ever-changing digital world so that they will be prepared for future careers. She’s an active supporter of new educators and is known as an innovator in STEAM education. As a teaching veteran of more than 12 years, she holds a Master of Education in Educational Leadership, a B.S. in Business Management, an Alternate Route Education Certification, and an endorsement in Gifted Education. She is an educational influencer, founder, and consultant at EDGEucating LLC.

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