3 Reasons High School’s Too Late to Teach Digital Citizenship

As we read yet another news article about a high school paralyzed by a student’s social media threat, or a student pushed to the brink by cyberbullying, it makes us question. Are these just anomalies? Kids acting out despite all the support they’d received in digital participation? Perhaps.

But we still can’t help but wonder whether there’s a pattern here. A pattern rooted in the neglect of one essential 21st century principle: digital citizenship.

When high schools experience online-related trauma, they sometimes turn to programs advertised as prevention measures. And maybe such programs prove helpful. But we contend that if we’re waiting around until high school to cultivate meaningful digital citizenship, we have waited far too long. Here are three reasons that lead us to this conclusion:

The Digital Age is Their Birthright.

One of our favorite definitions of digital citizenship is as follows, “The quality of habits, actions, and consumption patterns that impact the ecology of digital content and communities.” And it is every bit as relevant to our kindergartners as those units on traditional citizenship. 

As Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach explains,

“…things have changed. We don’t only want students to be good citizens of their physical spaces and geographic regions, but now we’re all global citizens, connecting with people all over the world through digital means.”

Most teachers already value and teach citizenship from the youngest ages, which helps students understand that they belong to a community. But we must expand this priority in helping them realize how they belong to a digital community, too. Because Will Richardson reminds us, “If you think that your kids won’t be interacting with strangers on the Internet the rest of their learning lives, you’re crazy!” We must teach safety, etiquette, literacy, and responsibility–both online and offline.

Waiting until high school gives kids more time to cement the idea that tech is just a toy.

Encouraging deep understanding of the multifaceted nature of technology is no one-time lesson. It takes authentic modeling. It takes opportunity for exploration. And it takes continual in-depth discussion. Only then will our students gradually discover that resources like Youtube can be incredible learning tools–not just entertainment.

But the issue with neglecting digital citizenship reaches beyond just shallow personal amusement. As we mentioned earlier, cyberbullying and threats of violence crop up in news feeds on a regular basis, and each time, administrators and policymakers ask how it can be prevented. Introducing and cultivating digital citizenship from a young age can curb this kind of abuse. After all, when students have been encouraged to see themselves as members of a real global community, they are less likely to see themselves as anonymous outsiders, and more likely to recognize the impact of their online actions.  

Kids are capable of positive online social interaction much earlier.

We’ll let recent tweets from hashtags like #Comments4Kids, #HourOfCode, and #MysterySkype speak for this point.

Above Tweet via Orchard Place Elementary at Des Plaines School District 62.


What difference does digital citizenship make at your school? What are some of your favorite ways to help students become better digital citizens?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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Mary Wade

I taught 5th grade at a PYP International Baccalaureate school in Utah for 4 years, and am currently on extended parental leave until my kids start school. In between the roller-coaster adventures of motherhood, I enjoy educational blogging so I can stay in the loop and keep learning! Snapshot favorites: Student voice & choice. Twix bars. Global classrooms. Calvin & Hobbes. Outlandish sewing projects. Teachers learning from teachers. Modeling daring to students.

2 thoughts on “3 Reasons High School’s Too Late to Teach Digital Citizenship”

  1. You make a good point about teaching digital citizenship from an early age – well before students start venturing online independently.

    However, my experience from teaching media studies in lower, middle and upper school has shown me that digital citizenship, along with related “cyber safety” studies, is much more effective when set in a broader context. By this I mean teaching about the Internet in a holistic manner.

    Students need to understand the fuller picture in order to appreciate the “rules” of the online world. Showing them what happens to our minds when we operate in the “virtual” world, will give them a much better appreciation of online social interaction. Instead of just teaching students how to protect themselves from cyber taunting, for example, it is important to tell them how the Internet enables trolling and harassment in the first place.

    Other topics I have identified as important to teach to younger (middle school) students include privacy, identity, cyberethics, and the basics of how the Internet works.

    You can read more about the curriculum that I have developed for teaching the Digital Age at http://www.livingonlinelab.org. I welcome your thoughts and feedback on this important, but as yet somewhat overlooked, topic.

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