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Defining Digital Citizenship: What, Why, and How

digital citizenship

In our daily lives, we get used to following the rules. We also observe how people around us follow them.

But online, it’s different. Most people don’t know what’s legal, ethical, or even appropriate. This is where digital citizenship makes a difference in improving our online world.

What is digital citizenship?

In a recent interview with After School, online safety expert David Ryan Polgar defined digital citizenship as “the safe, savvy and ethical use of technology.” DigitalCitizenship.net defines digital citizenship as “the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.”

So what are the norms?

To be responsible digital citizens, we must take responsibility for our actions online. A 2012 Concordia University blog post defined the five personal responsibilities of digital citizenship as:

1. Cyberbullying

“Although most social sites do establish specific Terms of Use Agreements designed to prevent cyberbullying, predator activities, identify theft and all of the associated trappings, it is the users who must ultimately take care of policing the communications.”

2. Internet safety

“Personal safety should always remain foremost in your mind. Many Digital Citizens believe that Internet safety is all about children, cyberbullying and sexual predators. But the issue spans a much broader gap. Resources made available by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service document a host of cyber crimes, cyber threats, and youth related risks.”

3. Netiquette

“As a model digital citizen, you are responsible for learning the Internet lingo and the times and places when that lingo should be applied.”

4. Reporting offenders

“A component of responsible Digital Citizenship demands that you respond to digital offenders in a manner that can end the offenses. This doesn’t entail a violent exchange of instant-messaging. It merely requires that you report the offender to the website management or, if necessary, to the proper legal authorities.”

5. Digital law

“Learning to protect yourself goes far deeper than the visual aspects of digital communications. You must also learn the laws that govern Internet activities. For example:

  • Do you know and understand digital copyright procedures?
  • Are you familiar with websites that involve software pirating?
  • How can you prevent someone from stealing your identity?
  • How do you identify Internet scams?
  • Can you prevent hackers from invading your system?”

Why is digital citizenship important?

Our online world is shaped by how we behave. What we do and say impacts the behaviors of others, and their behavior influences us.

Consider an example from the offline world: speed limits. A clearly posted and regularly enforced speed limit of 55 mph will lead to most people driving close to that limit. Without any limit (or a limit that isn’t actively enforced), drivers would frequently go 75, 80, or higher. No rules on the road, and no consequences for breaking those rules, would lead to chaos.

How is digital citizenship taught and can it be enforced?

Digital citizenship is best taught through a collaborative (team) approach that begins with talking to kids at an early age. Enforcing digital citizenship is difficult because the internet is an open place where anyone can create websites, online businesses, blogs, and share and connect with others.

This makes it even more important that everyone, from teachers to parents to companies, help steer young people toward responsible use of technology. Internet companies should participate by outlining clear community guidelines and policies, and enforcing those guidelines. Read After School’s community guidelines and how they enforce them here.

For more on digital citizenship, check out the following articles and resources:



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