The Importance of Teaching Digital Citizenship

Never in human history has so much information been so easily accessible to so many people––and never have information systems been able to adapt to users in the way that today’s internet can. This unprecedented volume and access combined with powerful algorithms and AI are contributing to an inescapable flood of misinformation. Given the polarized moment we’re currently living in, and as we enter election season, it’s never been more important for educators to ensure that our students understand this new media landscape and are able to accurately discern what is true and what isn’t.

We’ve been talking about “digital citizenship,” a term coined about 20 years ago, and using it as a kind of umbrella for a while now to cover a range of issues related to people engaging with content online: responsible use, critical thinking, social and emotional wellness, privacy, the impact of distractions on productivity, as well as the complex and multi-faceted notion of media literacy. And all of these dimensions of digital citizenship are more relevant than ever as we seek to help students learn how to navigate the breakneck pace of growth in technology and information.

As an educator who believes in the importance of this work and has been deeply involved in doing this work at my school, I wanted to get a better sense of how our schools are teaching digital citizenship. I reached out to some colleagues at independent schools across the country to learn more about their work and to inform my own, and in the interest of sharing best practices across our network, I’m briefly highlighting their programs and examples here.

Establishing Digital Mentorship

At St. Margaret’s Episcopal School (CA), Angela Mackenzie, director of educational technology, worked with The Social Institute (TSI), an organization that provides content and curriculum about digital literacy and well-being, to create programs for middle school and upper school students. But after developing programs to educate and empower students to have positive relationships with social media and technology for each division, she realized that students might benefit from connections between the school’s divisions. “We realized that our upper school students have many insights and wisdom to share not only with each other but with our younger students as well,” says Mackenzie.

This idea of connecting with peers inspired her to create a Peer Counselors program that is now at the heart of the school’s digital mentorship program. Now upper school peer counselors lead lower school students through TSI-created lessons about safe and responsible technology use, which both teaches the younger students and reinforces important lessons for the older students. The group of mentors will rotate through grade levels and meet with all fourth through eighth grade students throughout the year.

With modeling from their older peers, younger students are able to develop positive habits and gain a better understanding of some of the pitfalls of online behavior: the addictive nature of scrolling apps, the social-emotional risks involved with social media, and the inefficiencies introduced by digital distractions.

Grounding Media Literacy

Teaching students to question what they read is essential to helping them learn how to think critically and evaluate information online––where not all sources of information are equally reliable. This ability to question is at the heart of the media literacy efforts at Miss Porter’s School (CT).

All ninth graders at Miss Porter’s are required to complete a course called “Intro to Inquiry.” Psychology teacher Rebecca Plona, who co-created the course with history teacher Jennifer Pelletier, explains that “Intro to Inquiry” students are initially presented with exploring such fundamental questions as, “How do you know what you know?” The course then turns to the concept of perspectives and perspective-taking, specifically exploring “how we come to believe what we believe and how we can listen to someone who believes something different than what we believe.”

Plona also teaches students about echo chambers and uses a media bias chart, which rates the political bias of media outlets, to help them learn how to better assess information sources. For one assignment, students are instructed to investigate an issue based on two publications—one from the far left and one from the far right. In some cases, the information was so skewed by bias that students had a hard time understanding the basic facts. From the observation that bias can distort information, students return to the idea of inquiry and pose questions about how to get to an accurate understanding of the world.

Engaging Community

Here at the Wellington School (OH), our efforts grew somewhat organically in recent years from within the community. A small group of school administrators and parents who were invested in and wanted to work to address a range of tech-related issues created a digital citizenship task force that led and initiated a variety of programming that centers the importance of digital citizenship.

For example, they arrange meetups for families of same-age students to share issues they’re grappling, discuss best practices, and offer support. “There’s no sense in having a 10th grade parent talk to a fourth grade parent,” says LB Sweeney, Wellington’s director of experience, who is currently leading the task force. The needs and issues are so different, she says, noting that, for example, families with younger children can discuss ways of limiting screen time, while families of older children could help each other talk to their children about the way algorithms work, the impact of social media on body image, and more.

Wellington’s task force also brought in Catherine Steiner-Adair, a child development expert and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age to talk to students and families about a range of issues related to tech use.

During daytime presentations for students, Steiner-Adair explained how digital engagement can lead to impairment, for example, by decreasing one’s ability to hear and altering one’s sense of time. She warned students to be aware of hateful content online and gave simple advice such as “sleep with no phone in sight.” In a separate evening session, Steiner-Adair spoke with parents and caregivers to address their concerns and offer advice.

Our students are in the throes of an overwhelming and unparalleled revolution. It is incumbent upon us as educators to do what we can to adjust our practice so that we can help students navigate these monumental changes. Independent schools are well-positioned to do this; we are unencumbered by state or national standards and able to be nimble in creating and instituting changes that align with our principles and strategic plans. Given the urgency of technology emergence today, we must not hesitate to do so.

Greg Davis

Greg Davis is a seventh-grade English teacher at Wellington School in Columbus, Ohio.