Thoughts and Tools

Digital Citizenship

Another season of growth is upon me!  I’m learning all about what it means to be a digital citizen…and it’s actually making me think quite a bit about citizenship in general too.  Well, what’s this about?  I’m glad you asked!


The relationship between Citizenship and Digital Citizenship

Digital vs. Physical Citizenship

Taken from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary:

“CITIZEN, noun; 1. The native of a city, or an inhabitant who enjoys the freedom and privileges of the city in which he resides; the freeman of a city, as distinguished from a foreigner, or one not entitled to its franchises.”


The broadest conception of citizenship applies to both the physical and digital worlds.  Wherever communities exist, there are common issues of citizenship that must be addressed: freedom and privilege. Who has the right to have a voice?  Who has the right to remove others’ voices?  What is appropriate behavior?  What may I do with free autonomy?  How can disagreement and discourse happen productively?  What happens to those who break the laws of the land?  What can I expect to gain in joining a community?  What should I rightly expect to contribute to the communities I belong to?  And on.


What I also like about the Webster’s earlier definition of citizenship is that it distinguishes the citizen from the foreigner, or alien.  Even if a foreigner lives within the confines of a communal space, they do not benefit from the freedoms and privileges of that space.  And so this is another commonality between the digital and physical communities we share.  There are natives and immigrants. And while we have yet to see a virtual sovereign state or an election of a digital prime minister from the interwebs, there are still relevant issues to address.  Who should protect those with less power or privilege than others?  How can (or should) one join a community?  What should be done for those who wish to join but are hindered from doing so?  Should our communities be guided by equal opportunity or equal access?


However, it is also clear from the 1828 definition that there was no concept of a virtual community.  When you look up old definitions of ‘digital’, they focus on your fingers!  It is clear that our current society is forming new sets of relationships bound not by physical geography but by digital access. 


It is the constraints and affordances of these communities within their digital boundaries that make them unique and distinct from other communities.  Some of the benefits of virtual communities are their speed, potential exponential spread of information, and possible anonymity.  Some of the constraints and/or dangers include the ambiguity of ownership, proximal separation of members, exponential spread of information, and anonymity.


There are also many similarities and between our physical and virtual worlds.  They both are relational and communicative.  They both have norms, rules, and consequences.  They do, after all, involve US to some real degree. 


So, what is digital citizenship?  It has to do with belonging to (and creating) communities that are online.  Just like we have communities of people in the physical world, online communities exist.  And, just like in the physical world, we teach and expect people to follow certain norms.  There are boundaries around appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.  There are rights and responsibilities.  Anytime you see someone behaving in ways that are true, good, noble, safe, healthy, and legal you have found a true Citizen, whether physical or digital.


In short, here’s a personal working definition of the term Digital Citizen:


“A Digital Citizen is a participant in a digital community whose actions and attitudes embrace and promote that which is true, good, noble, safe, healthy and legal.”


Digital Citizenship in a Physical Reality


In the community that I work (a private school in Madison, WI), we do have issues related to digital citizenship that are burgeoning with import.  There are students who exhibit strong symptoms of addiction to their electronic devices, with apparently no restrictions or boundaries in sight.  Separately, while we are providing greater and greater access to technology in our classrooms, we are still providing only minimal training in the use of the equipment and little training in the appropriate uses of those technologies.  Sure, we block certain sites and have students sign that they won’t view inappropriate sites.  But that is a far cry from teaching them how they should live!  And the number of snapchat streaks that happen during the school day would, I’m sure, shock most of us if we knew the real numbers.  In short, our greatest current challenges lie in the areas of digital health and wellness and digital etiquette.



As for addressing these issues, I’m going to be one of main change agents in my school!  I’ve really appreciated reading through the lesson plans suggested in chapter 6 of our text (Ribble, 2015).  I feel that I am now armed with a solid framework for tackling these issues with my students.  I’m also now able to help other teachers break down these thorny issues into manageable, age-appropriate segments.  I’ll be incorporating moments for teaching on these issues in my computer classes.  Now that I understand more about these issues, I think I’ll also be more sensitive to teaching moments that happen in my other classes too.


Interested in learning more!  Don’t worry, there will be more posts along the way.  Or you could leave a comment!  I’d love to hear from you.



Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know (3rd ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology.


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Curtis White, M.S., M.C.E.
High School Faculty
Math, Science, Bible & Computers
Abundant Life Christian School
A Madison Christian School