Back-to-School: Digital Citizenship 101

Today's technology brings incredible opportunities for students- while with it also comes a number of dangerous risks and threats. Many of today's young people are thriving with technology- with the opportunity to make a positive difference locally and globally literally held in their hands. Unfortunately, others are self-destructing, harming themselves and others with the unhealthy use of social media, internet and smart phones.

What can parents and educators do to help prepare students to be good "digital citizens" in the coming school year? How can we balance both our enthusiasm about the opportunities technology offers with our concern about the dangers it presents?

For centuries, advances in technology have come with both enthusiasm and concern. The invention of the printing press in the late 1400's is a good example. While many rejoiced at the new ability to spread information to the public on a large scale, others feared what damage could be done with misinformation or harmful propaganda against the institutions of the day. Later would come radio and television which, as one author writes, "helped bring jazz music to a mass audience and also helped amplify the Nuremberg rallies."

Citizenship is "the qualities that a person is expected to have as a responsible member of a community." Digital citizenship refers to the qualities a person is expected to have as a responsible member of the digital community. Digital citizenship is taking the given opportunities and resources available and using them responsibly- using them to bring good to you and those around you.

Social media, internet and smart phones are today's latest opportunities and resources. Our role as parents and educators, then, is to teach and train young people to use them responsibly to bring good to themselves and others.

We cannot "pull the plug" and turn off the advance of technology- though some might prefer that approach. In 1964, in the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl wrote a poem that begins with:

"The most important thing we've learned,

So far as children are concerned,

Is never, NEVER, NEVER let

Them near your television set --

Or better still, just don't install

The idiotic thing at all."

In 2017, most homes do have a television installed, and most families set "television citizenship rules"- guidelines, boundaries and consequences for using televisions responsibly. What are the guidelines, boundaries and consequences in your school or home for using computers, tablets and smart phones responsibly?

Here are a few ideas to consider for developing healthy digital citizens:

1. What are the PRINCIPLES that guide your family?

These are the overarching values about technology. For example,Technology is a tool, not a toy.

  • Technology belongs to or is owned by your parents.

  • Technology will be kept in public view.

  • How much time is allowed? What content is acceptable?

2. Then turn those principles into specific POLICIES that work for your family or school.

  • We use technology after school for homework FIRST, then social media/fun for ___ minutes each day.

  • We put technology "to bed" in the kitchen by ____ o'clock each night before we go to bed.

  • Each child's device will have a parent control for approving all downloaded apps.

  • No devices at the dinner table.

3. PRACTICE what you preach. (This may be the hardest one). Parents and teachers have to model the same principles and policies they are asking of their students. "More is caught than taught."

4. Set up the PRICE to be paid when a policy is violated. Realistic, enforceable consequences should be agreed on by both parents/educators and students. For example,

  • At school, a device can be taken from the student and returned for $15 or at the end of the day.

  • At home, a device can also be taken, and kept for a certain amount of time. Household jobs can be worked or allowance docked to re-earn the device.

The key on all of these is COMMUNICATION. Clearly communicating expectations up front and continuing the conversations as they play out in daily life is critical. Rules without relationships lead to rebellion, so focus on keeping the relationships positive and close.

Fostering digital citizenship in today's young people is more about developing WHO THEY ARE than WHAT THEY DO (OR DON'T DO). It's more about character than correction. In writing about the printing press, author Jaron Lanier states,

"What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors."

(You are Not a Gadget, 2010)

Focusing on communication and relationships, we can come to accept today's technological developments as inevitable- even more as opportunities- and step into the modern world of your child or student better equipped to help them make healthy decisions- to help them be the authors writing a great story with great dreams and goals.


1. Watch the 6:00pm news together tonight. As you watch the stories, talk about ways technology has been used for good- and for harm. Ask if they know anyone in your community who may have faced a similar situation. How would you handle this circumstance if it happened to you?

2. Take a survey of the most popular Social Media apps. Talk through the positive and negative aspects of each. What are some guidelines and boundaries you can set to protect yourself?

3. Have a family (or class) meeting to set the Top 5 Technology Codes (or Rules, or Laws, etc.) for this school year. What will be the consequences for violating them?

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