Teaching students to use their digital power with care — and to make the world better
Instagram Influencers projecting physical perfection Cyberbullying in texts and on social media
TikTok challenges that encourage harmful — sometimes
deadly — acts
TODAY’S CHILDREN and youth live in an ever-evolving
digital world that is not always kind. Along with parents
and guardians, educators can help students learn to
make good digital choices — especially since students’
online activity — both good and bad — may be viewable in
perpetuity. It has become increasingly important for educators
to teach digital citizenship and encourage students to use the
internet as a means for good.
“We grew up with teachers showing us how to be good citizens in our community by being a good friend, being a leader, helping others and following rules,” says Rohya Prudhomme, an instructional technology facilitator for Los Angeles Unified School District. “Our students need the same skills to engage in digital spaces. These digital spaces are not just for fun or play; they are real communities for our students. This is their world. So, it’s vitally important to equip them with the tools to be successful in navigating these online spaces, such as communicating with empathy and compassion and collaborating with one another.”
Prudhomme, a United Teachers Los Angeles member, teams up with teachers at multiple sites to support schools with their implementation of digital citizenship, the International Society for Technology in Education standards, and computer science. As a Common Sense Media (CSM) Certified Educator, she is trained to help students think critically and use technology responsibly.
“There are many misconceptions about what digital citizenship is — and isn’t,” she observes.
What exactly is digital citizenship?
In the physical world, good citizenship means not being disruptive in class, being respectful and helping others. Being a good digital citizen has many of the same aspects, only virtually.
But it can be more challenging to be a good citizen online, because people — especially teens — may feel as though they are clicking away in anonymity. A lack of face-to-face communication dehumanizes others. And the truth may be distorted.
While online safety (such as not providing personal information to others) and being “nice” online are important, digital citizenship is so much more. It also encompasses being able to navigate, understand and share information online in a way that is healthy and helpful for all, says Katie McNamara, who handles community outreach for the Digital Citizenship Institute.
Katie McNamara, Kern High School Teachers Association
“We all have access to the internet,” says McNamara, a librarian at North High School in Bakersfield and Kern High School Teachers Association member. “The big question is what are you going to do with it? What messages are you sending out? What good are you going to put out in the world?”
The institute defines digital citizenship as the following:
• Alert and creating safe spaces for others online.
• Balanced, knowing how to prioritize time and activities both online and off;
• Engaged, understanding how to use technology for civic engagement;
• Informed, able to evaluate the accuracy, perspective and validity of digital media and social posts;
• Inclusive, or being open to hearing and respectfully recognizing multiple viewpoints to engage with respect and empathy online;
• An impactor, using technology to solve real problems in local, global and digital communities and empowering others to be the
“The pandemic exposed the need for teaching digital citizenship,” says McNamara, who was featured in the 2021 California Educator Innovation issue. “We experienced the negatives of misinformation — especially in regard to COVID — that put people in additional danger.
Teaching digital citizenship is not optional; it is required by law. AB 307 requires California districts to include “a component to educate pupils and teachers on the appropriate and ethical use of information technology in the classroom.” Federal law mandates that all schools receiving e-rate discounts (based on percentage of students eligible for the school lunch program) must teach students about “appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social networking sites and in chatrooms, and cyberbullying awareness and response.”
The topic is often highlighted by schools during Digital Citizenship Week (the third week of October), but some educators try to incorporate lessons year-round in “teachable moments” with students, such as talking about fake news, plagiarism, bullying, online hacking or sensationalism. Digital citizenship is complicated. But it begins with teaching about safety and how to engage in positive online interactions.
Safety and kindness create a foundation
At Judson and Brown Elementary School in Redlands, Katie Gillespie puts her third graders in groups and hands out small tubes of toothpaste and paper plates. She asks them to squeeze as fast as they can. Then she asks them to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Katie Gillespie’s third grade students (at left) learn that, like toothpaste squeezed out of its tube, once something is online it’s impossible to put it back.
“Afterward, we talk about how you can put something out there on the internet, and that like toothpaste, once it’s out, you can’t put it back. So, we have to be careful about the things we say and do online. We talk about sending and posting friendly messages, and discuss what is friendly and not-so-friendly,” says Gillespie, a member of the Redlands Teachers Association (RTA).
“Before we open our laptops at the start of the year, we have these discussions. It’s important for students to report something to an adult if something online makes them uncomfortable. They need to ask adults before downloading apps. I explain they should not ever share their password because it’s like giving someone the key to your house and access to all your information.”
Kristen Andrade, an instructional coach at Lasselle Elementary School in the Val Verde Unified School District, says the pandemic and distance learning provided students with more online freedom than ever before, so it’s crucial to teach digital citizenship lessons now that they’re back in the classroom.
“Students must make smart choices to build a strong, positive online presence and not become the keyboard bully or seek a different identity online. We must teach them that there are some people out there trying to get them to click on things, so they must be mindful of what they click on. They need to be cautious, aware and smart to avoid potential hackers and frauds.”
Her school uses GoGuardian, a program that monitors student activity on school accounts to support appropriate internet usage. Students are aware that this program allows teachers to view their screen during set hours.
“GoGuardian is a great tool to support digital citizenship as it promotes healthy online engagement and monitors activity that could potentially be harmful to students,” says Andrade, a member of Val Verde Teachers Association. “We take great pride in building relationships with students. But hopefully, by emphasizing the importance of a student’s digital footprints, it will translate into what they are doing on their own devices. Our goal is for students to take ownership of online activity and care about each other.”
Confronting, dealing with the negatives
Olivia Davison, a TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment) for
Redlands Unified School District, holds discussions about standing up to bullies online, just like students should do in person.
Olivia Davison, Redlands Teachers Association
“We discuss the impact of online bullying and using unkind words about someone, and that it can make them not want to come to school. And that what you think you are sending to just one person might be shared with the entire school. Being bullied can transfer over into the classroom and someone’s ability to do schoolwork. We talk a lot about empathy. It’s so important.”
Also important is learning to evaluate online information for accuracy, says the RTA member.
“It’s so easy to make a website look legitimate. And if something is retweeted often enough, it might seem true when it’s not. So, we ask students to be ‘fact checkers’ which can be as easy as doing a Google search multiple times to see if articles have an author or a date or a reliable news source.”
She encourages students to keep a “healthy balance” in their lives by not overusing technology and becoming overwhelmed by it.
“It’s OK to step away,” says Davison, a CSM certified educator who offers professional development on technology in her district. “You don’t have to be connected 24-7.”
Due to social media, students may experience low self-esteem and feel that everyone else is having more fun, says John Toledo, a computer science teacher at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles. He has seen students create an avatar (online persona) because they feel more comfortable in their digital life instead of their own.
“There’s this expectation to look and behave in a certain way that causes stress at school,” says Toledo, a member of the Camino Nuevo Teachers Association. “Because of this, students feel the need to post all kinds of unnecessary pictures and texts that could lead to trouble. And it gets to the point where they are so involved digitally, they are posting about life instead of partaking in life.”
One of his students, Leslie Villalta, shares: “Viewing influencers and observing their ‘perfect’ lifestyle and ‘perfect’ looks can force individuals to feel insecure about their looks. They want to be able to replicate influencers’ lives, which can be incredibly damaging to one’s mental health. Spending too much time on the internet may also cause an addiction, mirroring the effect of a drug.”
When teaching digital citizenship, Toledo asks students to print selfies of themselves and hang them up on the wall. Students do a gallery walk to look at the photos and see the humanity and good
in each other. He also asks students to examine online messages and discuss the tone of what is being conveyed. Is it sincere, mean-spirited or sarcastic? It is often hard to tell.
“When people contact each other through text — or a message that can be instantly erased on Snapchat and you have five seconds to read and process it — what you see can be interpreted in ways that lead to misunderstandings or conflict. It’s very important to discuss positive ways of effectively communicating online.”
Ultimate goal: Students as impactors
Ryan Hickman, 12, has a passion for recycling and cleaning up the environment. Thanks to his supporters around the planet, there are fewer recyclable containers making it to the landfill or out to sea where they harm animals and the environment. Hickman, a student at Marco Forster Middle School in San Juan Capistrano, has recycled over 1.6 million cans and bottles, weighing more than 160,000 pounds. He has created a nonprofit called Project 3R for recycling, using some of the proceeds to help a small village in Africa. He has raised nearly $15,000 for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. His company, Ryan’s Recycling, partnered with Recycle From Home, which pays Irvine residents for aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles and picks them up. He has partnered with the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings to organize beach cleanups and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Ryan Hickman, 12, is a digital “impactor” whose efforts to recycle and convince others to recycle have been hugely successful (#ryansrecycling). He gives some credit to his teacher Mark Rivadeneyra, left, who says “I believe in encouraging students to use technology for the public good.”
Hickman is a digital “impactor” who is using technology for the public good. He gives some of the credit to his teacher, Mark Rivadeneyra, who encouraged him to do something “powerful” last year with technology.
“I wanted to go online to make an impact,” says Hickman. “It’s important to make sure that people are recycling. If a 12-year-old like me can do something like this in the real world, anybody can.”
“Teaching digital citizenship is important,” says Rivadeneyra, a member of the Capistrano Unified Education Association who teaches yearbook and video production. “We tend to focus more
on the ‘don’ts’ instead of the ‘dos.’ But I believe in encouraging
students to use technology for the public good.”
It’s critical to help students use social media in positive ways that connect them to their communities, like-minded people and social justice causes, says Erica Swift, a technology integration support specialist for the Elk Grove Unified School District.
Erica Swift, Elk Grove Education Association
“I think specific examples would be students getting engaged in civic activities and talking about getting out the vote. Or teens having honest online conversations, instead of putting out curated versions of themselves. So many kids are struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. There are
online communities and organizations that offer validation and support and resources, which students can share with others on Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.”
The Elk Grove Education Association member acknowledges that students have displayed poor digital citizenship with TikTok challenges, cyberbullying and posting footage of physical fights.
Several of Erica Swift’s students in Elk Grove, from left to right: Joshua Chau, Jayna Jamson, Leonardo Lopez and Layla Jones. All have a solid understanding of what Swift has taught them; says Jamson, “I demonstrate good digital citizenship by being positive when people spread negative rumors and negative information. When I see negative comments, I report them or get them to stop.”
“We are trying to encourage activism instead, so that students’ values and beliefs align with what they are doing online. We are trying to have students think beyond their immediate lives and
see themselves as part of a larger, global community and a means for good.”
Power to the Students
Rohya Prudhomme, the instructional technology facilitator from LAUSD, says students are embracing the fact that social media allows their voices to be heard — and create real change.
“In our district students have used online platforms to create support for different social justice issues. They have encouraged others to contact their local representatives about issues including climate change, homelessness and even local beautification projects, such as getting sidewalks repaired in their community.”
When the city finally repaired the sidewalks, students were elated, she says. “They were so empowered to see the real-life impact of their actions. They were incredibly proud to be making an impact in their own communities and see themselves as digital agents of change.”
Student advocacy online happens frequently at the Social Justice Academy at San Leandro High School, says Erica Viray Santos, who teaches U.S history, government/economics, and social justice elective courses while serving as the program coordinator.
“I honestly think social media and technology can either be a weapon of mass destruction or used for mass construction,” says Viray Santos, a member of San Leandro Teachers Association.
Erica Viray Santos, San Leandro Teachers Association
After Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, concerned students issued a survey on social media, connected with community members, created a quick action plan, and helped to facilitate a protest with strong turnout in front of San Leandro City Hall — all within 24 hours. They utilized social media and other virtual tools to help organize and mobilize the community when Steven Taylor, a Black man who was having a mental health crisis in a San Leandro Walmart, was shot and killed by a police officer in April 2021. Students’ efforts together with his family and other community members resulted in a caravan protest, multiple marches, and even a celebration of life on the one-year anniversary of Taylor’s death that was attended
by hundreds of people.
Erica Viray Santos in class and inset. Behind her right arm is a ‘Justice for Steven Taylor’ poster; her students used social media and other virtual tools to help organize and mobilize the community when Taylor was killed by a police officer in April 2021.
“It was important for my students, the families and the community to grieve and feel solidarity together,” says Viray Santos.
Students are creating websites, using social media and many other virtual platforms to make a difference in the world, says the California Teacher of the Year 2022 finalist. Some are creating workshops, tutorials and businesses, which she calls a “virtual version of a lemonade stand.” Through technology, they fundraise to help others, raise awareness and build community.
“A lot of teachers say that they are ‘empowering’ students, but I don’t look at it that way,” says Viray Santos. “Students have always had that power. They just didn’t realize it.”
to Teach Digital Citizenship
Common Sense Media
teachers and schools with professional
development and free classroom tools
to help students utilize technology
responsibly and positively.
The Digital Citizen Institute
(digcitinstitute.com) offers workshops,
professional development for teachers
The California Department of Education (cde.ca.gov) website has links to resources.
Be Internet Awesome by Google
(beinternetawesome.withgoogle.com/en_us) has curriculum with resources.
Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Curriculum
has information for older students.
The Stanford History and Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning
(cor.stanford.edu) curriculum has more than 30 free, short lesson starters to help students evaluate information on social media and websites.
Facebook’s Digital Literacy Library
(facebook.com/safety/educators) in partnership with Youth and Media at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has free lessons on security, community engagement and positive behavior.
The Global Oneness Project
(globalonenessproject.org) has lessons and resources to help students develop understanding and empathy, with photos, videos and articles.
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals
(sdgs.un.org/goals) encourages social justice activities and calls students to action through digital presence across geographic boundaries.
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Teaching students to use their digital power with care — and to make the world better