Why Digital Citizenship is a Vital Part of Education

With the rise in awareness of such digital behavior as cyberbullying, inappropriate photo posting, and other regrettable or even dangerous web activity, it's never been more important to teach kids how to behave with integrity, empathy and self-awareness online. To understand the latest strides in digital citizenship education, we spoke with two of the country's top experts in the field: Diana Graber, co-founder of CyberWise, a digital hub of educational resources, and creator of CyberCivics™, a digital citizenship program now being taught in schools, and David Ryan Polgar, an Ed Tech expert and co-founder of the Digital Citizenship Summit, which will take place in October.

Verizon: What is digital citizenship?

David Ryan Polgar: Digital citizenship is usually defined as the norms of appropriate tech use. It's a large, umbrella term that encompasses safe, savvy and ethical behavior. If being a good citizen improves the vibrancy of a city or country, being a good digital citizen improves our online environment.

Verizon: What's an example of the consequences of someone not being well versed in digital citizenship?

Diana Graber: Examples of poor digital citizenship can be seen every day: the politician who sends an inappropriate Tweet, the teen who posts an unflattering photo of a friend, parents who share personal information about their children that becomes a permanent, and embarrassing, part of that child’s digital footprint. But even worse, those not well versed in digital citizenship can become either the perpetrator or target of cyberbullying and other dangerous activity. The consequences of not being well-versed in digital citizenship are permanent, searchable, replicable and can be seen by vast invisible audiences. It’s the mistake that never goes away.

Verizon: At what age should digital citizenship begin to be taught?

Diana Graber: At CyberWise, we believe that digital citizenship should be taught before a child starts connecting with others online. CyberCivics, our middle school digital media literacy program, starts in sixth grade with the entire first year devoted to digital citizenship.

But digital citizenship is an important topic to address well before middle school too, whether students are using devices or not. This is an important point. Media literacy expert Henry Jenkins of USC has written that “the most important media literacy skills are social and behavioral skills.” Thus the most important digital citizenship lessons for young children are age-old social skills, such as play, networking, negotiation and performance. When CyberCivics starts in sixth grade, students can easily make the leap from the offline to the online world, and in fact they see no difference when it comes to how they treat others.

Verizon: What do you think schools, parents, teachers and communities can do to make digital citizenship a bigger priority?

Diana Graber: We believe that schools, parents and teachers should demand that digital citizenship, or digital literacy, become a permanent part of the school curriculum. We are starting to see the tide turning in this direction, especially as elements of digital literacy are now embedded within the Common Core Standards.

David Ryan Polgar: Right now there is a little bit of confusion about whose role it is to teach digital citizenship. The underlying issue is that our tech use has completely obliterated the time and physical distinction of school and home. For example, a child may be dealing with cyberbullying late at night. The bully is a fellow student. Is this a school issue or a family issue? It is becoming clear that parents and educators need to work together in order to adequately promote digital citizenship.

The Digital Citizenship Summit is the first national conference dedicated entirely to digital citizenship. The goal is to not just be a conference, but a source of influence and action. Right now there are pockets of action in various states to teach digital citizenship in schools. In the near future, every student in the United States should continuously be exposed to digital citizenship in schools. It is truly as important as health class, and may be the modern version of sex ed.

Once people get what digital citizenship is about, they become an advocate. The challenge right now is educating the general public that digital citizenship is a 21st century skill that is not only important, but essential.