Digital Citizenship Instruction: Challenges and Opportunities

Digital Citizenship Instruction: Challenges and Opportunities

Digital media plays a significant role in students’ lives. In fact, young students are increasingly likely to own personal devices allowing access to materials for school and entertainment. According to Common Sense Media’s 2020 media-use study, 46% of American children aged 2–4 and 67% of the 5–8 year olds included in the survey own their own mobile device. From a young age, students create digital footprints and online presences, which can both enrich and interfere with life away from the screen. With this broader access come challenges such as boundary setting and the need to protect the digital rights of minors. 

Young people’s identities both influence, and are influenced by, their interactions with technology and the internet. In the classroom, educators have the opportunity to help students cultivate a nuanced understanding of how technology shapes aspects of their lives such as privacy, relationships, well-being, and ethical behavior. Not only is the internet a setting in which an individual’s personal identity is shaped and displayed, it is often also the primary context in which young people interface with the broader world. To navigate this context, students must develop an understanding of social responsibility and the ability to evaluate information critically. Like any citizen of a community, a digital citizen—in other words, anyone who engages with the world online—has the potential to contribute positively or negatively, and to be influenced positively or negatively by the people and forces they encounter. When a culture of digital citizenship is created in the K–12 classroom, students can begin to envision and practice their roles as agents of change.

Before we discuss the importance of and strategies for incorporating digital citizenship into the K–12 space, it’s helpful to take a look at the different approaches and challenges related to  digital citizenship instruction. 

Approaches to Digital Citizenship 

Some sources, particularly those written in the 1990s and early 2000s, treat digital citizenship as a separate layer of the larger concept of citizenship, while more recent studies interpret digital experiences as inherent aspects of modern citizenship. Given the evolving patterns of digital habits among young students and the pervasive nature of information, it’s most realistic to approach digital citizenship as a set of dispositions and abilities that students need to navigate important issues in their lives on- and offline. Digital citizenship in our present moment is impossible to separate from information literacy, critical thinking, and citizenship more generally. Students begin interacting with technology at the youngest ages, and these interactions grow only more complex and consequential as they age. 

To serve students in the classroom and in their efforts as lifelong learners, principles of digital citizenship should be integrated throughout students’ academic experience. Instruction should also incorporate aspects of social responsibility and critical thinking about socio-economic and political issues on a personal and global scale. 

Instructors should create opportunities for students to see the concept of digital citizenship not just as a set of safety rules or privacy practices, but as a tool for civic engagement. For example, if students are examining an issue like poverty, they can be shown how to leverage digital resources to engage with this societal challenge in many ways. Engagement may range from locating reliable sources on the causes and effects of poverty, to evaluating anti-poverty social-service organizations and nonprofits using publicly available information, to considering strategies for using electronic communication to raise awareness about how to help the vulnerable in their communities. In this way, digital citizenship comes to encompass not just protective behaviors but critical thinking and civic action as well.

Common Challenges

Digital citizenship is a multifaceted concept that can be difficult to internalize. In addition, it is often characterized only by certain aspects like privacy and cyberbullying rather than the full range of skills that define a digital citizen. According to the research by Harris and Jones, politeness in digital spaces is often considered an adequate measure when defining active citizenship. More complex actions like working to reach a consensus or an understanding of shared values are not always prioritized. Oversimplifying the concept of digital citizenship into a checklist of online behaviors overshadows the skills like changemaking that will benefit students as lifelong learners. 

The challenge for instructors is juggling the very real need for educating students about safe, responsible online use with laying the groundwork for skills like self-reflection or civic-mindedness and meeting institutional requirements related to their subject. Striking a balance can be especially challenging for educators of young students whose everyday experiences necessitate significant attention to ensuring safe digital interactions. For example, instructors simultaneously preparing their classes for state testing requirements and addressing daily online behavior concerns may not feel that they have consistent classroom time to explicitly address social responsibility and digital citizenship in their lessons. 

Another challenge in integrating digital citizenship instruction in the classroom is the limited exposure students receive to traditional civics instruction. According to the Center for American Progress, American high school students receive an average of only one half of an academic school year of civics education. In the review of civics class curricula conducted by Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown, we see that the majority of civics instruction focuses on knowledge over practice. For example, students are encouraged to learn about the history of the democratic process or the significance of specific articles of our Constitution, but rarely have opportunities to apply the concepts to real-world issues. Without application, students may be able to identify and access digital spaces but lack the ability to make digital tools work for them in the pursuit of real-world change. With the time and space for teaching the foundational elements of citizenship limited as they are, creating the bandwidth for instructors to focus on developing digital citizenship skills throughout students’ academic experience remains a roadblock.  


From standards to ready-made tutorials, there are several resources that educators can build upon to teach a wider range of skills related to digital citizenship. In addition, students can access digital citizenship guides that distill digital etiquette into a handful of steps. However, typically missing from these resources are the elements of social responsibility, strategies for being an active member in civic arenas, and engagement with current issues that are relevant to their community. These elements, as defined by Moonsun Choi, are the higher levels of digital citizenship that sit atop the foundational layer of basic civics education plus information and media literacy. By focusing on practical tips for digital safety as well as these three elements, students are more likely to come away with independent-thinking skills and the ability to self-regulate their online behaviors outside of the classroom.

Expanding the Definition

As discussed, digital citizenship is more than knowing how to engage with others in online spaces. Digital citizenship encompasses values and beliefs, which are key parts of identity-building for young students. 

As educators, we can broaden the understanding of digital citizenship from responsible online behavior to include lifelong learning and civic action. By highlighting the different aspects of life in which digital citizenship comes into play, we can help students recognize—and value—the connections between their online actions, their role in their community, and the broader impacts they can have on society. The Council of Europe, for example, defines digital citizenship in terms of both competent digital engagement and the dual elements of equality and empowerment. Their definition frames digital citizenship as follows:  

The competent and positive engagement with digital technologies (creating, working, sharing, socializing, investigating, playing, communicating and learning); participating actively and responsibly (values, skills, attitudes, knowledge) in communities (local, national, global) at all levels (political, economic, social, cultural and intercultural); being involved in a double process of lifelong learning (in formal, informal and non-formal settings) and continuously defending human dignity.

Making It Relevant

By teaching digital citizenship skills in the context of a community need, we can demonstrate the positive role students can play as changemakers both in digital spaces and offline. We can encourage students to make digital citizenship personal by providing opportunities for them to focus on issues that are important to them and reflecting on their cultural and political identities. Infusing civics plus information and digital literacy instruction with authentic experiences that are relevant to students reinforces the principles of civic participation and responsible use of information. For example, if students are learning about pollution in their local ecosystems, a visit to a conservation area, which students document and analyze in a blog post, can reinforce the connection between students’ offline experiences and their abilities to effect change using digital outlets. In this way, students can practice self-imagination and begin to internalize the practices of digital citizenship for future application. 

Cultivating the Mindset 

According to Mara Krechevsky and Ben Mardell of Project Zero, students’ ability and willingness to participate in civic spaces is in part determined by their experience working in a supportive group environment from a young age. As part of developing encouraging spaces for students to explore their roles as young citizens, it’s important to emphasize the connections between personal digital activities and larger civic issues that take place in the physical and digital realms in everyday life. 

For example, an instructor could help students recognize the power of combining their digital literacy skills with their values by analyzing the potential consequences of sharing information related to a local issue on social media. The first level of the students’ guided reflection would focus on digital literacy skills, such as evaluating sources for credibility and relevance, as well as the ability of social media platforms to bring people together to support a cause they care about. The next level of the students’ reflection would involve asking themselves questions such as, “Does this cause align with my values?” or “What additional resources can I draw on to advance this cause, both in my personal network and established organizations?” Centering citizenship in this way can help students contextualize their actions and digital skills within the larger conversation about civic participation, digital rights, and social justice. 

Digital Citizenship and Activism 

In her encouraging findings, Lelia Green concludes that young students are conceptualizing digital resources as intrinsic to their ability to exercise their rights as citizens in all aspects of life. In fact, young students today have several inspiring peers after whom to model their digital citizenship habits. Greta Thunberg stands out as a role model for youth citizenship—specifically, a form of citizenship that naturally incorporates digital resources into action (in this case, climate activism). Thunberg first drew attention to the climate emergency in 2018, when she was just 15 years old. She has since leveraged digital media to galvanize an international audience, including many young citizens, into action through both online campaigns and in-person events that aim to draw attention to the future of the planet. 

Participation of young activists on digital platforms around the world creates a sense of distributed citizenship, which, according to Díaz and Prados, when aggregated, can have real influence on public opinion and actions of the larger society. Given this understanding of digital citizenship as a driver of local and international activism, we as educators have the responsibility to continuously promote principles of citizenship to help shape and broaden students’ identities as responsible, global participants both online and off. 

Information Literacy – Core uses innovative technology and proven pedagogy to build essential information literacy and critical-thinking skills that will help students thrive in their academic careers and beyond. Learn more.


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About the Authors

Devon Lee began her work in the field of information literacy with Credo Reference in 2016. Developing tutorials, videos, and assessments for the Credo InfoLit products has given her the opportunity to dive deep into topics from evidence-based practice to digital citizenship. She has a B.A. in History from the University of California, Davis, and a Masters in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University. 



Tamar Rubin

Tamar Rubin is Manager of Learning Design at Credo, an Infobase Company, where she has worked for six years as a designer of information literacy content for libraries. She has an MSLIS from the University of Illinois and a BA in history from Yale University.