Digital Citizenship vs. Digital Responsibility

“Digital citizenship” is a phrase that is getting tossed around quite a bit lately in my district.  We are in the middle of an iPad rollout:  1:1 devices for kids grades 3-12 and a smattering of devices for grades K-2.  A few years ago, when our district started this process, we were asked to write a grant (of sorts) stating why we should be one of the first schools to receive technology, how we would implement it, and our plans to teach appropriate use.  As a result, “digital citizenship” became the buzzword.  Meriam Webster defines citizenship as, “the qualities that a person is expected to have as a responsible member of a community.”  I fully support teaching students to be active and positive citizens, but are “come to school with device fully charged” or “bring device to school daily” really measures of good citizenship?  To me, they are not, but until recently, I had a hard time explaining why.  I started to think about what makes someone a good “regular” citizen: They are caring towards others.  They strive to make a positive difference in their community.  They are trustworthy and reliable.  None of these things have to do with how charged I keep my technology. Keith Heggart recently wrote a post on Edutopia titled, “Why I Hate “Digital Citizenship.”  His post put into words what I had been thinking, but unable to articulate.


Heggart makes that claim that what we are really teaching is digital responsibility.  Follow the guidelines. Bring your device to school.  Don’t share your passwords.  As he mentions, that’s how to be sensible online.  Heggart goes on to state that if we are really teaching digital citizenship, we should teach how to correctly debate and discuss online and to engage their democratic leaders in dialogue through the internet. Common Sense Media is a site frequently used to foster digital citizenship in schools.  October 19-25th is Digital Citizenship Week.  Their blog post states that LAUSD, a major player in the digital conversion world, is pledging to teach 5 lessons that week: safety/privacy, password creation, cyber-bullying, information literacy, and digital footprint.  Under Heggart’s definition, only one (cyber-bullying) or maybe two (digital footprint) of these 5 lessons are actually about citizenship.  The rest are about responsibility.  Below you will find two posters available on the Common Sense Media website that are good examples of the differences between the two: responsibility      citizenship

Right now, my district doesn’t have a universal citizenship/responsibility curriculum or philosophy.  We do, however, put a strong focus on student/community citizenship and I want to make sure that transfers into the ditigal world.  Personally, I like Common Sense Media and the resources it has made available to me as we undergo this digital conversion process.  I do think that it is equally important to be both digitally responsible and an active digital citizen.  We should, however, teach kids the difference between the two.  Digital citizenship should focus more on the interactions that occur with the use of technology, where as digital responsibility should focus on safety and care.  My concern is that if we gloss over responsibility as citizenship, the major issues in digital citizenship such as cyber-bullying and social activism will fall to the wayside when, in fact, they are just as (if not more) important. How does your district define “digital citizenship?”  Do you have any documents you can pass my way that will help my district on our journey towards technology integration?


12 thoughts on “Digital Citizenship vs. Digital Responsibility

  1. Kate:

    As a computer teacher, I completely understand your frustrations with the phrase digital citizenship. What we try to teach our students is about what responsibilities you have when you are online and how those responsibilities are traits of a good digital citizen. For example, we talk about how a responsibility of a good digital citizen is to ‘stand up to cyberbullying’ or ‘give credit to others when using their work’; things like that. To me, these responsibilities of a good digital citizen fall under that digital citizenship umbrella. Similar to Mr. Heggart’s quote, responsibility, instead of citizenship, is how I see it as well.

    On the same note, I like how you talk about distinguishing between responsibility and citizenship. I completely agree with your analysis that responsibility is safety and care and citizenship is focused more on interactions. My students come in to class thinking they know how to do everything yet they know so little when we talk about different topics like safety, security and online interactions. As teachers, I think it’s great that we are able to talk to our students about these different topics and keep those lines of communication open.

    We use Common Sense Media as well! My colleague and I are the two Computer teachers within our school and we use CSM for many of our paper-based lessons and activities. I think their resources are the best available to educators AND they’re free! We love it.

    My last thought on your post is about your comment about cyberbullying. I agree that cyberbullying is one of the biggest problems with young people and the Internet. Separate from CSM, we do an entire unit on cyberbullying. With my grade level, 6th graders, this is the year that they start using social networking more so than in the previous grades so we try to educate them and make sure they understand potential consequences of it. It’s amazing to me how many stories my students have that they share about instances in which they’ve witnessed or been on the receiving end of cyberbullying. It’s awful. As long as they’re educated about it and a bit smarter about it when they leave my class, I consider that a success!

    Thanks for sharing! ☺

    • Cyber-bullying is amazing to me – in a bad way. I wish I knew a psychologist who could explain to me why people feel like they can say hurtful things over the internet because they are behind the anonymity of a screen (even if they aren’t anonymous.) I’ve seen plenty of comments, as I’m sure you have, too, on social media from people who I THOUGHT were upstanding people saying things I’d never hear them say. 6th graders and social media – you have my sympathy!

      I think both digital responsibility and digital citizenship are great things, but we should keep them separate so that neither of them lose their meaning. Both are equally powerful and necessary!

  2. Kathryn,

    I like the idea of extending citizenship to the cyber and non cyber realm. One issue I take in society is the commonness of one person ignoring another because they are checking a text, etc. Barring an emergency, this seems rude to me. It would be nice to discuss the ineffectiveness of multi-tasking and encourage students to be fully present to whatever situation they are in.


    • Yes, I agree that it is rude! I’m happy to report that I’ve seen a lot more of people keeping their phones put away during dinners out and social events. I’d like to think that we are getting over that, but I have nothing to back that up!

      Aside from being polite and generally allowing yourself to enjoy the moment, here is an interesting article on how multitasking is not as effective as we think it is:

  3. Hi Kate,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I am a middle school teacher and from time to time we learn about students who make poor decisions online. We have an advocacy program in our school, but I think it comes up short when discussing digital citizenship. Thanks for sharing the common sense resource. I am going to pass the resources onto our advocacy team and print some of the posters out for my own classroom. How does your school facilitate modeling digital citizenship? Do you have assemblies? Or is it part of your school culture?

    • Hi Kevin-
      We actually don’t have a plan in place yet. We were not chosen to be one of the first schools for the roll-out, so we are deciding all of our digital citizenship and safe use policies this year. We have tentative plans in the works to teach a curriculum to all students (which one, we’re not sure) as well as having family/student tech nights where we encourage the whole family to attend to learn about safety/citizenship as well as introduce programs we are using. We do have a strong school culture already around “regular” citizenship – we have character traits that we study school-wide in 6 week sessions and a Social Skills specialist who is in rotation with PE and Music. We also incorporate PBIS into our everyday actions so that students see us rewarding and talking up positive behavior 4-5 times more than negative behavior. Hopefully, we will be able to wrap all of what we already have into incorporating digital safety/citizenship. I’ll keep you posted! I will ask how some of the middle schools in our district who are already a part of the roll-out how they incorporate it into the school.

  4. I get what you are saying about digital citizens, but then I think about age. At what age does true citizenship work really start happening? In kindergarten, isn’t the children just interacting with the person sitting next to them in a kind way the type of citizenship they need to work on? Even by the time they get up to 5th grade, what do we expect they can do on there own in citizen work, digital or physical? I know there are some shining examples of what kids can do. They can do amazing things. I also know that I have had classrooms full of students that have lives that are so full that they can barely see past themselves. I think that digital citizenship is necessary, but that it needs to be built upon a solid base of the the safety rules and regulations.

    It sounds like you are giving your students this good base and just arguing the semantics. Way to get them started on the right path early on.

    • Chris – Lucky for you, I like arguing just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate! Yes, I agree that in kindergarten, just learning cooperative play and problem solving interactions are an appropriate level of citizenship. However, that being said, we always want to make sure that we are challenging kids just a little bit further and encouraging high cognitive demand. Kindergarteners inherently want to help and do good things. Starting community citizenship skills early is never a bad idea!

      One thing that I battle with almost all professional development or new ideas/ policies (including many Wilkes classes) is, “What does this look like for kindergarten?” What does this look like at the very beginning? It won’t be fluency and mastery in practice. Perhaps we need a graduated approach to safety vs. citizenship. In the primary grades, students are working on mastering digital safety and dabble in digital citizenship. Then, as they get older, they have the foundations of safety engrained in them and can spend less time in safety and more time on citizenship. I like that you said, “what can we expect them to do…” It is so important that we take the time to think about what is developmentally appropriate for all levels of students. Just because they can physically manipulate and use a device doesn’t mean they are developmentally ready for higher-level citizenship-based interactions. It should be appropriately scaffolded throughout their career.

  5. I never thought about the difference between digital citizenship and digital responsibility, but what you wrote is very logical. Making sure you bring a device to class that is ready to be used doesn’t really deal with what the responsibility of what you are posting. I loved the comment of how Keith Heggart said about teaching students to debate or to engage with others. With students being able to hide behind a computer screen, teaching them how to write and speak in a professional manner is essential as they grow up.

    Thank you for sharing the Common Sense Media site. Though it is not something I would use with my job, I have a young family member that is special needs, and I was impressed that this site included an entire section devoted to that. I sometimes feel these students are not considered when discussing certain topics, so it was nice to see.

    I don’t have any documents from Wilkes regarding Digital Citizenship that I can pass along, but I will see if my younger sister has anything from her district.


    • “Hiding behind the computer screen” is exactly right! It kills me to see people say things online that they would NEVER say in person. (Or maybe they would and they are just nasty people? I hope not!) It is going to be added to our list of never ending things to teach that we help kids learn appropriate online interactions.

      I’m glad you found use in the CSM site. It really is a great resource!

      I find it interesting (and a little ironic) that Wilkes and our online program don’t have digital citizenship policies. Maybe it’s assumed that by college you should know these things already?

  6. Thanks for the feedback. I like the idea of a family/student tech night. When parents and teachers use the same terminology and send the same message it resonates with students.

  7. Kate,

    I find since I have Prek-2nd grade art I model and draw pictures when it comes to behaviors, concepts, responsibilities, and citizenship.This year we started making a few videos (about art class rules, how to use glue,etc.) I feel like when they take part in something or know the players it is more relatable to them. At their age, it is all about “me.” (that’s any age right?) Kids who are looking for and lacking love and acceptance will sometimes express that in the most unloving and unacceptable ways. I try to remember that when I see what people say or do online however it is never an excuse. If you are here ( online, in a classroom, in public, in existence) you are responsible for your behavior and citizenship- digital or otherwise. We all need work at being understood and communicating. When I don’t know something or make a mistake I own it and tell my kids. I apologize when I need to. Do you really learn from being a know it all or not making mistakes? I don’t think so. I try to be thoughtful, reflect humbly and be a better person. If you don’t know what responsibility or citizenship looks like, how can you be expected to do it? So I model how to draw that picture and we practice, practice, practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s