The Myth Of Digital Citizenship And Why We Need To Teach It Anyway


At one time in the not so distant past there were no cell phones. And then everything changed at a rate faster than the speed of amending a student handbook. I can distinctly remember the first time one of my 8th grade students brought a cell phone to school. It really wasn’t that big of a deal, more of a novelty really.  I mean one student with a cell phone had next to no bearing on our day to day school operations. But then a second student brought a cell phone.  That gave every 8th grade student license to go home and lament to mother and father that everybody else had one they were the only student without what had become the essential accessory. Mother and father, worn down by this insistence and wooed by the safety rationales, relented. 8th grade  cell phone possession became the norm. And that’s when my fellow teachers lost their minds.

We had no specific rule established for cell phone use. And the students were all up in this new fangled texting thing. So we had meetings addressing the texting crisis. I shall paraphrase the meeting dialog.

“Sam they are texting each other. They are texting each other in class.”

I didn’t see the problem the same way my peers did.

“Um, isn’t this kinda just like passing notes?”

“No Sam, it isn’t.  This is new technology. This is a problem.”

“I get that it’s new technology. But aren’t we talking about basically the same behavior? We’ve just shifted from an analog to a digital method, right? I’m thinking I would probably handle this pretty much like any other classroom distraction.”

“Sam, it’s like you didn’t hear us. This isn’t passing notes. This. Is. Texting.”

It made me wonder. In the 19th Century with the advent of mass produced pencils and paper granting students previously unrealized liberties with stationary and writing instruments did educators find themselves re-evaluating their expectations in order to manage the disruption brought about by such technological advances? My intuition tells me yes. As educators, this guy included, we tend to overthink things occasionally. I’m thinking that they established a finite paper allocation and a pencil check out system. Maybe even a cart rolling up and down the hall that housed the pencils when not in use.

We tend to forget is if we teach clear and comprehensive expectations about behavior we have pretty much all our technology bases covered in regard to digital citizenship.

Why? The reason why is because there is no such thing as digital citizenship. It’s just citizenship. The rules don’t change just because you have a screen in front of you.

Fast forward to my time as Dean of Students at a high school. Before the school year multiple teachers and administrators met as a behavior and security committee. One of the issues we addressed was our cell phone use expectation. The prevailing opinion of the committee members  was an “Off and Out of Sight” policy as in prior to entering the school building students were required to power off the cell phones and keep them out of sight until the last bell of the school day. This was in 2008 in a school of 1500 students. We were proposing an expectation that for all intents and purposes required cell phones to not exist between the hours of 8:10 to 3:20 within our walls. This seemed unreasonable and unrealistic to me.  I voiced that instead we teach responsible cell phone use consistent with our other behavior expectations. That didn’t happen. Which meant that in my first year as Dean I invested a fair amount of time into cell phone policing. Since I have departed that position someone more persuasive than I convinced the powers that be to adopt what I would call a more reasonable policy based on responsible use of personal digital devices (who says cell phone anymore anyway?) as opposed to near prohibition. What I am saying is that the students by in large can use such devices at school.  Even with what some would term a more lax policy the students continue to graduate. In fact they are getting into college.  I’m assuming they are taking their smart phones to college with them.

We already had the appropriate policies and expectations in place. All we needed to do is teach how the expectations applied to the technology. That’s an important clarification. I think that often when I tell people that there is no such thing as digital citizenship they think that I am advocating ignoring the presence and impact of technology. Nope, that’s not it at all. Anytime we gain access to new technology the potential for misuse is just so appealing. Some of our students will gravitate towards those uses because they are such fun. Without doubt we need to address these concerns.  However, it doesn’t need to be wholesale policy change.

How would a good citizen handle this technology?

Is your use respectful, responsible, and safe?

That’s it. That’s all you need.

For example “Before you take that picture of yourself with your smart phone and post it on social media would you take the same picture with a Polaroid camera and walk up and down the halls handing copies out?” Admittedly you might need to explain what a Polaroid is but you get my drift.

The real way technology challenges us is the impact of misbehavior. The scope and reach is immediate and vast. An infraction that in the analog world would constitute a small gaff can become a full blown media incident in our digital age. What technology has done is taken the social consequences and amplified them beyond the capacity of many of our students to comprehend.  It’s taken what historically has been pretty low price tag infractions and inflated them at a rate many of us are unprepared to deal with. Consequences we engineer should teach.  The consequences brought about by the ramifications of misuse of technology often do not teach. They often do damage. We really have very little control of the coarse reaction the world drops on our children.

What it hasn’t changed is how a good person conducts themselves. Teaching and reinforcing how we want our student to conduct themselves is absolutely within our control. Keep teaching those expectations. Focus on the core character principles you want to foster in your students. Don’t be scared of the technology access. Teach your students how they apply to the technology they use. Know that we probably can’t anticipate what innovation will bring next. Technology and progress will not slow its pace. Chances are the fundamental values of citizenship will address it no matter what. Don’t rest on teaching good citizenship as part of all interactions. Expect the same conduct face to face and screen to screen and biotech interface to biotech interface. Teaching our students attributes like compassion and empathy and responsibility addresses our digital dilemmas, even the ones we haven’t seen yet.

Image Credit: Flickr 


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  1. […] We are forgetting to manage our attention and be mindful of how our tools change us. In the oft-quoted idea of  Marshall McLuhan, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”, he exposes the idea that “at first, technology serves as an extension of humankind but after a while a subliminal flip takes place and suddenly the user is transformed into an extension of the technology they have come to consider part of them” (source). However true this pathology is, there are certainly things that we can do – must do – to positively influence technology’s power in our lives and in our world. In this post by teacher and blogger, Pernille Ripp, she describes Facebook’s role in the loss of drive to nurture true friendships and develop deep connections to others, but goes on to point out that it is not the fault of these new social learning spaces [Facebook]. We CAN do something about this if we only recognize when this is happening. Mindfulness. Is the solution to create “anti-technology zoning for cognitive health – to protect us from our own worst instincts”? To create Wifi or network-free zones so that we can actually focus on the people we are with? Mindfulness. Is the solution to pay hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, to attend a tech-free camp – a digital detox? Mindfulness. Is the solution to install apps on our devices that force us to take digital breaks or block access to all social media? Maybe they can help a little. Mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience” (source). Another defines it this way. “Mindfulness means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness.”  The same article goes on to say, “While the technique of mindfulness isn’t hard, developing a disciplined practice can feel like an Olympic challenge — which is where education comes in.” Developing a “disciplined practice” applies to much more than the digital in life. It relates to what we eat, how we exercise, what we read, how we grow and develop professionally, how we deal with stress, with anger, and so much more. So, are we teaching our children and our students how to do these things, how to be aware – mindful – of how our tools change us? Are we teaching them how to live healthy and balanced lives in an augmented (digitally-mediated) reality? Are we teaching them how to use these new tools and spaces in meaningful, positive, and powerful ways? Are we modeling these very behaviors and practices ourselves? Are we teaching them to be wise, kind, empathetic, empowered citizens in ALL the spaces of our current reality? Or, are we still sending a dualistic view that “the digital” is somehow different, that how we behave virtually needs a different set of rules then how we behave when face-to-face, that we have to not only teach how to be good citizens, but also how to be good “digital citizens”? (see The Myth Of Digital Citizenship And Why We Need To Teach It Anyway) […]