Teacher’s Guide to Digital Citizenship

The horror stories of young people not grasping the reach and influence of the content they put online are familiar to all of us. From the loss of job opportunities due to unprofessional pictures or comments on social media, to the more serious threats of abduction, and even the self-harm inspired by cyber bullying, the stakes are high.

While students may often seem clueless to these dangers, some are starting to understand the risks. In a recent Rasmussen study on digital literacy, details of which you can see in the infographic below, 37% of millennials aged 18 – 34  said they consider the internet scary, which is more than any other demographic.

Still, millennials know just as well as any other demographic just how important digital literacy is and will continue to be to their working lives. As such, studies like these serve to demonstrate how crucial teaching digital literacy — particularly at a young age when that digital footprint is still lightly drawn — has become. This includes teaching students about the potential dangers they face online as well how to navigate privacy risks, and so much more.

Teaching digital citizenship means embracing the reality that we’re all interconnected through the Internet, and that we therefore need to understand the responsibilities and risks that come with life online.

THINK Map image

Image courtesy of Flickr and Thomas Galvez

Why Digital Citizenship Matters

Neither educators nor parents have the means to completely control how students use technology. That only makes it more important for teachers to address digital citizenship in the classroom, so students will have a better idea of what they’re getting into once outside of it.

Lessons in digital citizenship are about both teaching students how to protect themselves and their own futures online, and also how to be thoughtful citizens who are respectful of others. By now, most of us have seen ample evidence of how the anonymity the web seems to offer a level of vitriol and cruelty people don’t usually practice with those they see face to face.

The Internet has the capacity to bring the worst out in people. You don’t want your students to be victims of that – not on the giving or receiving ends.

Important Topics of a Digital Citizenship Curriculum

A lot of the most important lessons for students to learn about digital citizenship can be grouped under the categories below. The lessons for each category will look a little different for various age groups. Common Sense Media has some great suggestions for what lessons work best for different grades.

Online Safety

This is probably the most important topic to cover when teaching digital citizenship lessons. The Internet is great for making new connections and befriending people all over the world, but it also opens up students to contact with online predators. Students should be taught the kind of warning signs to look for when it comes to interacting with strangers online, and the kind of information they should never give out.

Understanding Digital Footprints

School-ages students see the world as being contained to the people they see every day.  Even if they understand, in a general sense, that the Internet is public, it might seem impossible that anyone outside of their immediate circle would care to find out anything about them

As educators, you know better. Students need to understand how their digital footprints will follow them in life and how important it is to start caring about what those footprints look like early. Examples of how past online behavior influences people’s job prospects or verdicts in court can help students better grasp just how big of a deal digital footprints are.

Financial Responsibility Online

Digital credit card theft happens all the time. Anyone entering financial information online can be at risk of having that information stolen. With many of the biggest corporations in the world dealing with wide-scale hacks, consumers are limited in what they can do to protect their financial information online. However, there are a number of best practices students should learn in order to be better digital citizens.

You can teach students how to recognize and avoid some of the most common Internet scams, how to recognize secure sites online, and what information is not safe to share online, especially while using non secure channels like email.

Acting with Respect Online

Cyber bullying has hurt many people and even caused many children to take their own lives. Students need to understand that their actions, even those taken online and behind multiple computer screens, can and do have enormous consequences.

The emotional results of behaving disrespectfully online are arguably the most important thing to stress here, but there can be professional and legal consequences for bad online behavior as well. If you say hurtful things on social media that future potential employers (or friends, for that matter) can see, it will have long-term effects on what people think about you and may impact the opportunities you have.

Information Literacy

The Internet is the go-to place for most research that students do today and they need to learn how to use in the most beneficial way. The ability to find good information online is a skill in and of itself, as is being able to recognize which sources aren’t reliable.

The web is filled with information that can be useful to anyone wanting to learn about just about anything. But they have to learn how to get around the stuff that’s counterproductive or outright inaccurate in order to enjoy that benefit.

Legal Restrictions Online

Your students probably already have some familiarity with concepts like illegal downloading and plagiarism, but may underestimate the potential consequences of these actions. You can discuss with them both the morality of taking actions online that break laws, as well as the risks they take if they do so.

Resources for Teaching Digital Citizenship

You don’t have to figure out how to teach all of these topics on your own, there are a lot of ideas and resources out there already.

We recently collected 15 of the best digital citizenship resources for you that include lesson plans, educational games, and videos. Common Sense Media also works to provide a wealth of resources each year during Digital Citizenship Week (although they’re accessible all year long).

A lot of the topics that fall under the umbrella of digital citizenship seem dull or unpleasant on the surface, but that doesn’t mean teaching them has to be. Interactive exercises, games, and discussions can help your students think critically about the issues while staying engaged and interested.


  1. Bourimech El kebir

    April 15, 2015 at 4:10 am

    A good topic.Digital citizenship is the appropriate masterkey to open the dangerous iron gates of the digital world.A surfer should be equipped with sophisticated arms so as to avoid self-harm.

  2. Jen Carsen

    July 16, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    This is a great post–the Internet is a fantastic tool for educators and students alike, but it comes with attendant risks and responsibilities. This piece touches nicely on many aspects of what it means to be a responsible, and safe, citizen of the digital world.

  3. Sammi

    September 20, 2015 at 9:33 am

    Hi Kristen,
    What a great post! It is so important for students to understand the appropriate use of digital mediums at their fingertips and their responsibilities in being digital citizens of the world. As you stated, it is a skill for students to be able to get good, reliable information online. As a teacher, I think that if we assign students to do online search and use digital media in their learning, then it is also our responsibilities to provide them the tools to understand them how to access these information appropriate and responsibly.