Citizenship in a Digital Age

I know that bad news sells but the lack of positive digital citizenship stories has been irritating me for a while. What started as a small irritation has ended up in this blogpost. The mainstream media seems determined to pigeonhole digital citizenship as being purely about online safety. It also follows this up with talk of teenaged “digital natives” and implying that they exist in a seedy online world which we older folk could possibly never understand.

It is important to educate all people (not just children) about how to stay safe online including cybersafety, security of your devices and what to do about online bullying. It is not, however such a doom and gloom situation as it seems the mainstream media makes it out to be. In fact I find it interesting how quickly students soak up this information and really appreciate having more knowledge on what to do in certain situations.

A great example of how quickly even young students learn how to stay safe is the great advice shared during the kidsedchat Digital Safety discussion last week. These are Primary school students now demonstrating true citizenship by helping others stay safe online! These students meet up every week to discuss different topics which is where we really start to see what digital citizenship means in action: they are participating in a purposeful activity online, thinking critically, relating to others in positive ways and helping each other manage challenges. Check out for more.

In a secondary context, our students at Hobsonville Point Secondary School created their own Digital Citizenship pledges. The students in my hub did not just focus on online safety and bullying in their pledges but also on aspects like digital manners and attributing ideas to where they have got them from.

Online safety is not the only aspect of digital citizenship. The commonly accepted and used definition of Digital Citizenship in New Zealand comes from NetSafe:

Working from this definition a group of committed teachers co-created the digital citizenship wikieducator site which is an incredible resource for teaching young people to be better citizens in a digital world. The image below shows all the different sections on this site. The sections that I regularly use with students are the links slightly showing up in purple: Plagiarism, online research and critical thinking.

WikiEducator Digital Citizenship sections

WikiEducator Digital Citizenship sections

Thanks to the plagiarism resources on this great website I have helped my students learn referencing skills that I didn’t gain until I was at university. How to cite resources, why we should cite where our information comes from and what the different versions of rights reserved actually mean.

The strong changes in recent times around rights to use the work of others has been the rise of creative commons. This is a form of licensing your work that allows others to reuse and share it and is growing in schools around New Zealand. The really interesting part of this that many teachers don’t realise is that under normal copyright situations any work that teachers produce is owned not by them, but by their Board of Trustees. This means that they are not allowed to share that work without the permission of their Board. By having a creative commons policy the creative work of people in the school is able to be shared and reused by others according to the terms of the license you use. You can see the details of my creative commons license at the bottom of the page of all of my posts.

To understand digital citizenship more clearly we need to think about both parts of the phrase. I find it more effective to rephrase it as citizenship in a digital age. For me, this then means how we actively participate in a society where digital technologies are prevalent. This can of course happen in a negative way – which gets lots of press coverage – but can also happen in a really positive manner.

To start reframing the focus of digital citizenship so that people can begin taking positive action we need to see how to be a better citizen. I believe the kinds of citizens as defined by Westheimer and Kahne could prove to be a useful way to do this.

So a digital citizenship version could be:

  • Personally Responsible Digital Citizen: contributes to online campaign by sharing links, signing online petitions and sponsoring people taking part in charity campaigns such as Live Below The Line.
  • Participatory Digital Citizen: uses digital technologies and social media to organise actions that benefit society. One of the best examples of this is the Student Volunteer Army that used social media to form, organise and then assist Christchurch in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. 
  • Justice Oriented Digital Citizen: uses digital technologies to critically assess society and seek out ways to effect systemic change. One group that would possibly be reaching this level would be Generation Zero. They have been very active in campaigning for a carbon-zero world and are starting to have influence on Auckland’s local politics scene.

Two great campaigns I have come across from teenagers lately started as a response to bullying. Old fashioned face-to-face bullying, not cyberbullying as such. But they are using the online world in a positive manner to fight bullying and spread their ideas.

The first comes from Kelston Boys High School who had a tragedy last year as a student died in an assault after a rugby training. Defeat the Label was created by a Health class at the school to encourage people to stop being bystanders when bullying and physical threats occur.

The second is an inspiring story of a 13 year old girl who had experienced and seen enough bullying that she decided to write a song. Nakita Turner interviewed hundreds of students from 6 schools and collated their stories into a song. It is an incredible effort and I highly recommend that you check out One Voice.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if more of these type of stories were shared in the media!?

I want to finish by asking people to stop using the “digital natives” tag. It is simply not true and becomes a dangerous crutch to fall back on. Our students come to school with a wide range of digital abilities just like their abilities in any other regard. Many are completely fluent in 1 or 2 social media platforms, maybe have some forum or youtube skills but categorising all students as “digital natives” and expecting them all to be fluent in everything online is ridiculous. It also allows some people to slip into a mindset of “why bother – they know more than me anyway.” For a far more eloquent explanation of this read Steve Wheeler’s excellent post where he talks about digital residents and visitors.


13 thoughts on “Citizenship in a Digital Age

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful blogpost, Steve. I agree that we lack examples of the oft-neglected key side to digital citizenship: positive contribution and participation. I also appreciate the links above as I head into a wee digicit session with my Y8s at the end of the week 😉

  2. Great post. Bookmarking it to share with my NZEI worksite reps as I sent out an email this week asking them to get their staff to think ethically about how they use social media in teaching and personally as a result of those articles that galvanised your thoughts here. I’ll have this website for my next email to them. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for this excellent post. This is an area that my school is currently re-visiting, so if you don’t mind I’ll forward it to my principal. You raise some points which I hadn’t considered. Thanks again.

  4. Hey Steve,

    Another insightful piece from you. I particularly liked the last paragraph about ‘digital natives’. I really believe that this is a total misnomer and very much over-hyped by most people. And I think is gives rise to a certain laziness from some (older, non-digital native) people. Here’s a question for you. Do you consider yourself to be a digital native?

    • I consider myself a Digital Resident in some aspects such as blogging/social media but still a Visitor in others such as coding etc. What about you? Native, Resident, Visitor?

      • Good question! I haven’t actually thought about it in terms of myself. I’m not sure. I guess technically I’m not a native. Perhaps a ‘resident visitor’? Or maybe a ‘visiting resident’? However, I would question the validity of that particular label (i.e. ‘native’) as most kids are not particularly savvy when it comes to ICT in the way I would expect someone who is a ‘native’ to be. Does that make sense?

      • Absolutely makes sense and your hacking of the labels is a gteat way to use them. The last thing we need is for people to pigeonhole themselves in a new manner!

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