Why Digital Citizenship? Why Now?

February 13, 2012
Sarah Jackson
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom

The new media landscape is changing very quickly. Both the number of new tools and the ways digital technologies are becoming part our lives are growing at an incredible pace. Many of us feel like we can’t keep up.

Thinking of our children exploring on their own in this complex digital world certainly gives us adults our share of anxiety. 

And anxieties about things like online predators, cyberbullying, corporate marketing or sexting are not unfounded. But we also know we can’t prevent our kids from taking part—unless we want to put them at a severe disadvantage going forward.

So how can we arm our kids with the tools and ethical base to navigate this new world? How can we foster good digital citizens?

Instead of a fear-based approach, research by scholars such as Howard Gardner and others offer a broader lens with which to see the opportunities, and the risks, of digital life now and in the future.  

Gardner, a professor of psychology and education at Harvard University, and his colleagues at the GoodPlay project, part of Project Zero, are studying the ethical decisions young people make online.  They find kids, but teens in particular, don’t always think before they act. When interacting online, young people think most often of the immediate, individual effects of their actions and much less often about the larger community.

The role of adult mentors, Gardner says, is therefore to help teens reflect on the ethical implications of their online activities, to ask questions like “how do you present yourself online, and what are the ramifications of that action?” Adults, in other words, should help teens examine questions of privacy, ownership, credibility, and community.

A report by the federal Online Safety and Technology Working Group (pdf), released last year, came to a similar conclusion. Authors of this report say the best thing educators and parents can do to keep kids safe online is to shift from a fear-based approach and focus on building media literacy and promoting digital citizenship.

“[W]e need to go beyond worrying about predators and pornography,” task force member Larry Magid, co-director of, writes in a blog post, “and start thinking about young people as active participants - true citizens - in an increasingly interactive online environment where young people are just as likely to create content as they are to consume it.”

Some educators are leading the way. Patrick Woessner, a middle school instructional technology coordinator in Saint Louis, has documented his adventures in teaching digital citizenship on his blog, “Technology in the Middle.” 

“It’s important for adolescents to develop good habits early so they are accustomed to being cautious when interacting in wide open networks,” Woessner writes.

As part of a 7th grade course on media literacy, Woessner’s students practice creating an online profile in their school’s protected social network, and they also practice effective search strategies, learn how to evaluate the information they find online, and explore the intricacies of copyright and fair use. Woessner also emphasizes that students do understand a lot about how to interact in a digital environment and work best when they are allowed to explore their own interests and passions.

And in Wilmington, North Carolina, school librarian Jennifer LaGarde says she’s working with her students and staff to move beyond conversations about protecting students from the evils of social media and into conversations with about how to help kids “develop a safe and responsible online presence.”  

LaGarde says instead of restricting access, adults need to be asking the hard questions that will help get kids to begin to think critically on their own. She writes: “what happens when a teacher is not there to keep a child from visiting a ‘bad’ site?” Or “what happens when students are asked to submit personal information for an online profile, but they’ve never been taught how?”

But for many other educators (you know who you are), creating your own closed social network or even leading a discussion with students about how to find legitimate sources of information online can seem totally overwhelming.

So we’re here to help.

At Common Sense Media, we’ve put those suggestions to work in a comprehensive and flexible resource for use in all kinds of classrooms. Based on the research from Gardner’s GoodPlay project, our Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum is designed to help teachers empower their students to navigate the digital world as a good digital citizen. See for example this lesson on Taking Perspectives on Cyberbullying or this one on My Online Code. Resources are free and available for grades K-12.


Photo by Rachel Wente-Chaney.