The Strategy for Digital Citizenship

Summer 2013

By Edward Chen, Don Orth

Our children know more than we think they know, and less than they think they know. They are swimming in oceans of data, communications, and media. While we call members of this generation “digital natives” — those with the ability to consume, create, absorb, and navigate everything in the digital spectrum — in truth, our children are in danger of being overwhelmed by this 24/7 unfiltered digital world without our guidance. While we carefully oversee other areas of their lives, many of us are unintentionally negligent when it comes to their digital experiences. Though we may be uncomfortable with the full scope of our responsibility in the digital world, ignoring it won’t make it go away. 

Research by Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit working with parents and educators to improve kids’ lives in a world of media and technology, found that “our nation’s children spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school, which profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development."1

In such a world, how do we cultivate a culture that supports effective and responsible device use in schools and at home? For schools, how do we develop effective curricula on digital citizenship and information literacy when our days are already packed? 

Why Teach Digital Citizenship?

Our work in school always focuses on creating good citizens, and digital citizenship is just another fold in the nuanced fabric of childhood development. But digital citizenship needs particular attention today because of the divide between the analog (offline) and digital (online) life of children. The sheer time-factor of children’s online lives is concern enough. But the nature of digital devices matters, too. The alluring option of anonymity can blur one’s perception of cause and effect, action and consequence — especially among the young. 

Much of digital citizenship education is related to being a good citizen and exercising good judgment. We teach these values in everyday life, but to date the digital life of children is often considered outside this realm. By focusing on digital citizenship, we acknowledge that our students’ online lives require the same attention and guidance as we give to their offline lives. Our aim is to empower students to make smart, responsible, and respectful decisions when using media. At the same time, we want to help them to understand the ethical consequences behind the decisions they make online. 

When technology lived primarily in a computer lab and there was limited digital access at home, the gap between a child’s analog and digital life was clear. With the ubiquity of personal devices, and an increasing number of shared devices and 1:1 programs in schools, the gap is gone. 

Still, schools tend to keep substantial education about online character and ethics on the periphery. In a school that prides itself on academic excellence and character development, digital citizenship needs to be woven throughout all core curricular areas. It needs to be relevant to students’ lives and integrated into their everyday learning and living. The conversations need to start in the early years and continue throughout the course of their educational careers. Each grade level needs to address age-appropriate issues and build on the understanding of the year before. These dialogues need to evolve as children become more sophisticated and as the technology evolves. 

In short, schools need to commit to a spiraling, integrated approach to teaching digital citizenship.

Helping Parents in Their Role

A tech director at a peer Bay Area school told us that a parent had asked her how to tell her child not to use the iPad in the bathroom. Another parent once sought out one of us to ask what her child was doing on the iPad for so many hours each night. Yet another asked what the acceptable tech hours at home should be for her two middle schoolers. Clearly, parents are looking to schools to help them manage their children’s digital lives. 

To this end, it is crucial that schools involve parents in teaching digital citizenship from the onset. They can guide parents in responsibly overseeing their children’s digital lives at home and in building a collective vision of a digital citizen. If the education about one’s digital life happens only at school, many parents don’t feel empowered to guide the digital behavior of their children, particularly when it comes to school-owned devices or homework online.

We have found that parents appreciate knowing not only the school’s Acceptable Use Policy, but also relish getting additional guidance about how they can extend that policy into their homes. With a carefully structured partnership between schools and homes, parents can help guide the process — and feel confident that they are doing the right thing. For instance, they can say to their child: “I know you’re not supposed to be using your school iPad to chat with friends about your new puppy,” or “Remember the agreement that we made as part of the school’s Acceptable Use Policy? No iPads in the bathroom. Now just slide it out under the door.” 

Alignment between school and home with regards to digital citizenship and healthy digital usage is a hallmark of a 21st-century school. A community-wide understanding of the norms, rules of behavior, rules of engagement, and common practices is necessary for all schools in order to raise an ethical, digital (and real-life) citizen. Without this key parental partnership, these conversations regarding digital citizenship will just become incoherent whispers in the minds of our students, overwhelmed by the louder voices of media, false information, and misunderstanding. 

Creating an Effective Digital Citizenship Program

Once school leaders commit to the idea that it is the school’s responsibility to guide students in the digital world beyond simple computer use, computer class, or a one-shot assembly on the dangers of being online, the school needs to create and implement an integrated program. 

Phase 1: Crafting a Vision

There are various ways to craft the vision of a digital citizenship program. We encourage you to start the conversation early — at least six months ahead of officially implementing a digital citizenship program — and take the following steps:

  1. Form a Digital Citizenship Task Force consisting of key administrator and faculty members who are eager to carry the torch. Include your librarian/media specialist, tech director, curriculum specialists, the person(s) in charge of scheduling, academic dean(s), and grade-level leaders. You want educators in the room who not only can write policy, understand the school’s curriculum, and define a framework that works for your school, but who can also articulate a holistic vision that takes pedagogy, communication, and curricula into account.
  2. Figure out how and where behaviors related to technology use complement or enhance your current student code of conduct. (Generally, you will find that expectations of good digital behavior are in line with good behavior in any situation.)
  3. Draft a document that explicitly identifies expectations related to technology use and ethical online behavior. This “document of expectations” should reflect or reference your code of conduct or your Acceptable Use Policy.
  4. Consider using some of Common Sense Media’s core beliefs to initiate or guide a dialogue about your own school’s philosophy (see sidebar).
  5. Make an action plan for implementing your digital citizenship program. Figure out who is responsible for which parts of the program.
  6. Collect and share online resources with teachers, students, and parents — such as Common Sense Media’s K–12 Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum.2
  7. Have conversations with both teachers and parents. If your school is starting a 1:1 program, begin outlining your hopes and expectations for the program so that both parties have time to digest it all and prepare well in advance. Figure out ways to have the conversation truly be two-way. Regardless of the school’s planned use of technology, gauge your parents’ and teachers’ comfort levels when it comes to digital citizenship and use of sophisticated devices.
Establish Your Core Beliefs

Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit working with parents and schools to improve kids’ lives in a world of media and technology, encourages schools to develop a set of core beliefs related to technology use. In particular, they suggest the following: 
  • We believe in media sanity, not censorship.
  • We believe that the collective media has truly become “the other parent” in our kids’ lives, powerfully affecting their mental, physical, and social development.
  • We believe in teaching our kids to be savvy, respectful, and responsible media interpreters, creators, and communicators. We can’t cover their eyes, but we can teach them to see.
  • We believe parents should have a choice and a voice about the media our kids consume and create. Every family is different but all need information.
  • We believe that the price for free and open media is a bit of extra homework for families. Parents need to know about the media their kids use and need to teach responsible, ethical behavior as well as manage overall media use.
  • We believe that through informed decision making, we can improve the media landscape one decision at a time.
  • We believe appropriate regulations about right time, right place, and right manner exist. They need to be upheld by our elected and appointed leaders.
  • We believe in age-appropriate media and that the media industry needs to act responsibly as it creates and markets content for each audience.
  • We believe ratings systems should be independent and transparent for all media.
  • We believe in diversity of programming and media ownership.


Phase 2: Training Teachers, Engaging Parents 

Once the groundwork is done, you need to build awareness of the program and expertise within it.

It is misguided to think that digital citizenship is a completely new and foreign curriculum that must be learned from scratch. At the core of digital citizenship are issues of awareness, kindness, and sound judgment, all of which we already teach. The key is to make the concrete connection between the kids’ digital and nondigital lives. Common Sense Media has a well-organized scope and sequence covering the digital citizenship landscape for children ages 5–18. But you can also leverage the expertise among your faculty — for instance, the professional knowledge and experiences of your librarian and media/technology specialist. They are often on the cutting edge of these conversations and connected to a broad network of other experts. They can work with teachers to incorporate digital citizenship into everyday grade-level or departmental curriculum.

When training teachers, it is important to get all faculty on the same page. In our experience, the following steps will help:
  1. Familiarize teachers with the initiative. Hold a faculty meeting about the digital citizenship initiative, and discuss the background and classroom resources they have available to them. Discuss the importance of a spiraling approach — building an understanding in students about their digital lives from year to year.
  2. Make sure you schedule other times during the year for teachers to evaluate and integrate digital citizenship work. Think about fun ways for teachers to share ideas about digital citizenship in their classrooms.
  3. Make sure digital citizenship education is embedded across the curriculum at each grade level. Have a few target areas to address during the year, and encourage teachers to introduce digital citizenship concepts — copyright or privacy issues, for example — within a lesson when appropriate.
  4. Build in an end-of-year orientation, introducing faculty to the resources from Common Sense Media and elsewhere. This will provide time for them to integrate a few digital citizenship concepts into their curriculum as they plan over the summer.
Finding Your POISE

An important detail in our parent education at Hillbrook School has been to introduce a tactical strategy for parents to follow when their children are engaging in poor digital citizenship. It’s a process we call POISE. When your child makes a mistake:
  • Pause: take a moment and remember to breathe... children make mistakes.
  • Open-minded: keep a dialogue going; try to see all sides of the issue.
  • Information collection: take time to collect all relevant information before reacting.
  • Seek that teachable moment: use the school’s expertise to problem solve.
  • Empower kids through education: they can’t become responsible without having responsibility.

Parents also need to understand the school’s digital citizenship goals, lessons, and expectations. Ultimately, you want parents to know the school’s acceptable use policy and expectations, and then encourage them to build their own parent–child media agreement about digital/online usage, behavior, and expectations at home. The goal is a unified front from the school and the home.

In reaching out to and forming an alliance with parents, consider the following:
  1. Start with written communications, but then provide education sessions at school where you can have a face-to-face conversation about digital citizenship issues at school and home. The goal is to create a communication framework. Make sure they have a way to ask questions about media use as they arise throughout the year. Remember this is not a one-shot approach but a regular exchange.
  2. Provide resources. In particular, direct parents toward Common Sense Media’s family media education resources.3
  3. Designate an online repository (website, iTunesU course, etc.) for the ongoing sharing of materials and information. Provide suggestions to parents about different home management strategies. Make sure parents have easy access to the Acceptable Use Policy.
  4. Encourage teachers to communicate with parents about digital citizenship topics or issues they may have addressed with students. Determine the best way for teachers to share this information on a regular basis.

Phase 3: Implementation

To kick off the year, we suggest comprehensive “boot camps” in which teachers practice their often newfound knowledge by leading workshops for the incoming students. When appropriate, invite parents in for parts of the trainings as well. Focusing on digital citizenship before the devices are in the hands of students provides an excellent foundation. 

If it is difficult to have full-day or partial-day boot camps before the school year starts, dedicate class time in the beginning of the school year to key issues for specific age groups. Make sure every subject is giving some time to the activity; every teacher needs to be invested. When using digital resources or devices for work in class or at home, recap the specific digital citizenship components that they need to think about.

Throughout the year, build in a couple of check-in sessions with each grade level. The goal is to carve space regularly for open dialogue about concerns, issues, discoveries, and lessons learned. You want to provide an open forum for students to share their actual experiences. Many schools have advisory periods, human development classes, or other organized time during the year that would be appropriate for these discussions. Whatever works best for your school is fine. Just be sure to find the time.

For parents, Hillbrook School (California) holds an information session for fourth-grade parents at the end of the academic year and another at the beginning of their fifth-grade year (when students enter Hillbrook’s 1:1 iPad program). This coming year, the school will expand these gatherings to include parents of all grades, one or two grades at a time, to focus on age-appropriate issues related to digital citizenship. The message is threefold: (1) helping children become good digital citizens must be an ongoing practice led by families and schools together; (2) having access to a range of technology through school creates a positive context in which to have these conversations; and (3) students will make mistakes, and it’s our collective responsibility to turn these mistakes into learnable moments.

It also helps to identify peer leaders. We know students are likely to pay more attention to their peers than to adults. Schools can organize and support a leadership group focused on digital citizenship. Have the group members create videos about good practices, and about what to be wary of in the digital world. Ask them to lead conversations about incidents in your school or in the media around these topics. Of course, a good curriculum and follow up on these topics will make the digital citizenship conversations relevant, but empowering student leaders to model and discuss good behavior with their peers is always a win-win. 

Always Look Ahead

Good online behavior is directly and inextricably related to good behavior in general, which rests at the heart of a solid K–12 education. We cannot predict what technology will look like in 20, 10, or even 5 years. But we do know that children will always need our guidance in managing and navigating the increasingly complex digital world. Such guidance is essential in creating not only a generation of positive, responsible, and kind digital natives, but also a generation of good citizens. The basic tenets and concepts around digital citizenship are evergreen. Digital citizenship and information literacy comprise some of the most important education we can provide our children. Unlike the comings and goings of technology devices and applications, the way people operate in the digital world will be relevant and significant for years to come. 

Commit your school to building partnerships with parents. Make digital citizenship an essential part of your program so when your students go out into the world, digital or other, they carry themselves well and build a stronger, more positive community for everyone.


1. From Common Sense Media’s mission statement,

2. See

3. See
Edward Chen

Edward Chen is director of technology at The Nueva School (California). Special thanks to the following members of the digital citizenship task force: Renee Ramig (Seven Hills School), Barbara Cohen (Marin Country Day School), Kelly Scholten (Hillbrook School), Tom Wroten (Sacramento Country Day School) and Tibby Wroten, and Darri Stephens (Common Sense Media).

Don Orth

Don Orth is director of technology at Hillbrook School (California). He speaks regularly on the school’s iPad program and iLab project (