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White Paper – Digital Natives: Citizens of a Changing World

White Paper – Digital Natives: Citizens of a Changing World

Digital Natives: Citizens of a Changing World
Fostering Digital Citizenship in the Classroom


Fifth in a series exploring the impact of and challenges surrounding technology in schools

April 4, 2016

Authors: George Dotterer, CEO and Co-Founder; Andrew Hedges, Program Manager; and Harrison Parker, Director of K-12 Education, Verite Educational Systems Inc.


Personal technology has evolved from luxury to life necessity in Western society; the US government is commoditizing access to the Internet, individuals are cultivating strong connections with strangers across the globe, and facility with technology has become a cornerstone of workforce competitiveness, much like language fluency. With nearly one in ten children receiving a mobile device, such as a smart phone, by age five,[1] today’s youth are the new digital natives.  Ensuring children understand the implications, consequences and best practices for engaging with technology and social media is critical to safeguarding their well-being and to developing workplace skills.

Digital native refers to young people who have grown up around digital technologies and seem to instinctively understand them.[2] By contrast, older generations are considered digital immigrantsDigital native, new to technology, possibly fascinated by the new tech, and adopters of many aspects but lacking an instinctive aptitude with tech.[3] Digital citizenship is the practice of defining the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.[4] The generational technology divide is widening at a quickening pace as children become more knowledgeable than their parents about the latest online trends and technological advances.

The indelibility of a digital footprint has implications unprecedented in society, particularly for youth. Giving children the tools and ethical code to make good choices is vital. Online postings can affect their college acceptance and future jobs – not to mention more anonymous apps that allow persistent, untraceable bullying. Teaching digital citizenship keeps them and their futures safer and allows positive communications and relationships to grow out of social media connections. It also helps cultivate an appreciation of power over others and an ethos of “Do No Harm.”


Anchoring Digital Literacy in a Moral Construct

An overwhelming number of teachers and parents believe that schools’ integration of technology in teaching and learning is important to the education of American students today.[5] But making technology effective in the classroom requires much more than merely equipping students with Internet access and devices. Students must understand how to use personal technology in ways that enhance their learning experience and lead to self-empowerment and awareness, and schools must ensure that they protect students while guiding their exploration of the digital landscape.

Teaching basic digital literacy is a start. New York City’s Department of Education defines digital literacy as “having the knowledge and ability to use a range of technology tools for varied purposes.”[6] Students who are digitally literate know how to effectively use technology to collaborate, create original content, and conduct in-depth research for academic purposes. Digital literacy will be required for the job market of the future. Providing students with basic skills early in their education will help them grow up to be proficient and comfortable in the digital world. While digital literacy is required for engaging with technology and provides the basic building block for responsible digital citizenship, schools must also provide guidance. Looking to the future, today’s youth will encounter technologies and face choices that will seem unimaginable even today. Anchoring their digital literacy in a moral construct is critical for providing context and helping them develop safe and responsible decision-making abilities that can last a lifetime.

In most schools, guidance around personal technology comes in the form of acceptable use policies, which detail what is disallowed on school devices or Internet connections. Such policies protect the school and the student from potential legal infractions, but students may not understand the legal jargon or ramifications. By emphasizing the positive aspects of technology use in schools with broad, easy-to-understand language, administrators can show students that they encourage the use of the Internet and trust them to use it maturely. Empowering students with their digital rights and responsibilities by inviting them to use the network – consequences and all – helps shape them into the digital citizens tomorrow’s world will need.

Teaching consequences at an early age has a lasting impact. While the consequences of violating a school district’s acceptable use policy are clearly defined and understood, consequences of other actions are less clear cut. Students may not feel the consequences of their actions online as the relative or total anonymity and the physical remove afforded by social media provides a buffer between themselves and their subject. The instantaneousness and wide reach of viral communications escalates impact. Cyberbullying is on the rise and can take many forms including mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.[7] Teaching students that something as simple as a Facebook post or email is out of their control once it has been sent may help students grasp the impacts of their actions on both themselves and on others. Even anonymous apps such as YikYak, or seemingly private apps such as Snapchat, can be manipulated and used to harm others.

Digital citizens must also know their rights to privacy, especially when their data is easily visible on social media. Students may not be aware of the risks they take sharing personal information on the Internet, or they may not know the proper steps to take to ensure their information remains private. Students should be taught to always stop and consider before posting, searching or doing any activity online. Protecting oneself and others before clicking must become muscle memory, a reflex. Students should know how to generate safe usernames, understand that stealing information and other people’s creations is the same as stealing tangible items, and appreciate the difference between personal and private information by middle school.[8] This helps train students to be responsible, thoughtful digital citizens, so that by the time they reach high school when social media and technology usage are more prolific, they are inclined to behave responsibly. Pairing a rigorous education in appropriate Internet usage with software that helps teachers and parents manage their children’s online presence and activity creates a rounded approach that benefits all.

Helping Children Step Consciously into the Digital Space

Children may be the new digital natives, but they still require guidance, especially since they, like so many adults, are unaware of the threats that lurk online and the full consequences of their actions. Teens and preteens alike often lack an awareness of privacy issues. They often post inappropriate messages, pictures, and videos without understanding that “what goes online stays online.”[9] An important element of digital citizenship training is building awareness of the potential dangers of the Internet and the permanence of one’s personal footprint.

This is not to say that social media is bad – it allows children to stay connected with friends and family, make new friends, share pictures, and exchange ideas. Social media participation can also offer adolescents deeper benefits that extend into their view of self, community, and the world.[10] Schools and parents need to help children step consciously into the digital space with their own sense of purpose, identity and values. Instructing children and teens on how to engage with social media productively should be a central goal of any digital citizenship program. Educators should look for ways to engage critical thinking around students’ everyday media uses, whether through planned projects and lessons or informal engagement.

Students interact with social media daily, but few understand the privacy risks posed by the simple installation of an app. Information may be gathered from a user’s actions online using “cookies,” which can be used to create targeted advertising.[11] Social networks do not necessarily guarantee the security of the information that has been uploaded to a profile; even when posts are set to private. This was demonstrated in one May 2010 incident during which unauthorized users were able to see the private chat logs of their contacts on Facebook. While these glitches are usually quickly fixed, there is great potential for taking advantage of leaked information.[12]

The Internet bears record of everything a user posts, even after it is deleted.  Social media postings can affect students’ future lives, impactiFostering Digitial Citizenship in the Classroomng anything from jobs to colleges to friendships. Teachers may want to dissuade social media use in class, which is understandable. It can easily become a distraction for students as well as a platform for bullying. However, teachers can use social media and technology as a method of teaching self-regulation by inviting children to recognize when they’re getting upset or starting to lose focus.[13]

Social media allows students to connect classrooms to the home and to connect to notable figures in the subjects they are studying. Social media can also foster cross-cultural exchange, since it reduces miles and oceans to a few simple clicks. Incorporating a social media lesson can also help students learn to think critically about the media they consume. It can also be a powerful illustration of how dedicated people can use social media to unite and demand change.

Teaching students digital etiquette and safety can help during these interactions and shield them from potential harm and preserve their online integrity. Students should be taught things such as choosing a respectable screen name and double checking any communications they’re sending out to make sure nothing could be misconstrued. Additionally, text and photography can be easily manipulated, so if a student thinks it could be embarrassing or damaging to others, it should be reported and deleted.[14]

Parents, Technology and Raising Responsible Digital Natives

Beyond teaching digital citizenship concepts, schools must include parents in conversations around digital health and wellness.[15] Parents are often the last to know about new social media and online trends, only finding out about them after major news coverage. A good digital citizenship curriculum encourages parents to become active participants in the teaching and understanding of how digital citizenship can help their children engage safely.

Similar to structuring schools’ responsible use policy, parents should outline the positive aspects of Internet use, while clearly defining inappropriate behaviors. Introducing children to technology in the home at a young age can help children cultivate digital literacy outside of school. Schools can help parents and students by providing tools to supplement the digital citizenship content being taught in schools. Educators and parents should seek to help students contribute and engage with media in ways that are empowering. Children consume a wide variety of digital media on a daily basis, so teaching digital citizenship in the classroom and at home cannot be limited to media selected for educational value.[16]

Engendering the New Generation of Digital Citizens: Recommendations for Schools and Parents

Teachers, administrators and parents must work together to ensure students receive comprehensive instruction in digital citizenship. When school districts work on developing a technology program in schools, a digital citizenship curriculum must be a core part of the program. Giving students access to devices without context does more harm than good. Creating a more empowering acceptable use policy, which emphasizes the positive aspects of Internet use, not just consequences, empowers students. They are entrusted with responsibility for their own learning and held accountable while navigating the online landscape for academic and for extracurricular activities.

Schools should invite parents to participate in the development of curriculum, encouraging their input and offering education and discussion forums. Lessons must be consistent at home and in school, centering in basic societal values of decency, responsibility, compassion, and doing no harm. Digital citizenship extends past children using EdTech in schools; it applies at home as well, when students are online for personal or academic purposes. Encouraging parents to participate in their children’s digital literacy will enable a more holistic and formative approach to digital citizenship.

Schools can offer seminars to update parents on the latest social media trends and the current classroom topics. Parents shouldn’t be the last to know – they are another line of defense and education for students online. Schools must provide parents and students with an easy-to-understand guide for online behavior.

Parents and teachers alike can use tools to manage Internet activity and foster discussion about appropriate behavior on and offline. We need EdTech solutions that help manage children’s online activity. Schools need EdTech solutions that allow teachers to communicate to parents about progress and/or concerns, supported by data on the student’s online activity. This information helps bring a complete understanding of how a student’s use of technology is helping or possibly obstructing learning. Platforms must be easy to use, allowing teachers to access the information quickly and use it to encourage their children to stay on task and become more invested in their education, and guide parents with behavioral data specific to their student.

Schools can train students to be safe and well-informed, responsible digital citizens with simple steps:

  • Design a robust digital citizenship curriculum.
  • Counsel students that “what goes online stays online.”
  • Craft an empowering acceptable use policy for students.
  • Teach students their digital rights.
  • Advise parents of new social media and online trends.
  • Provide an easy-to-understand guide for online behavior.
  • Equip teachers and parents with EdTech programs and practices to manage children’s Internet use.



NetRef and Verite Educational Systems

Easy to use and integrate, NetRef is a new Internet management tool that helps teachers and students get down to the job of learning by managing access to the Internet on any device. Now operating in schools in eight states, NetRef allows schools to maximize their tech investment and help teachers get their classrooms back. NetRef does not require any installation on student devices. Verite Educational Systems is a spin-out of Verite Group, which for over 12 years has provided Subject Matter Expert (SME) services, tailored tech solutions and managed network infrastructure for government programs and corporations. Learn more at, on LinkedIn and Twitter: @NetReferee.

[1] The Guardian. Nearly one in 10 children gets first mobile phone by age five, says study. August 2013, 2013.

[2] Ribble, Mike. Digital Citizenship in Schools, Second Edition. International Society for Technology in Education, 2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4]  Winn, Matthew R. “Promote Digital Citizenship through School-Based Social Networking.Learning & Leading with Technology, December/January 2011-2012: 10-13.

[5] LEAD Commission. Parents’ and Teachers’ Attitudes and Opinions On Technology in Education. August 2012.

[6] NYC Department of Education. Enhancing Digital Literacy. n.d.

[7] What is Cyberbullying. n.d.

[8] Marcinek, Andrew. The Path to Digital Citizenship. November 26, 2013.

[9] Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, M.D., and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, M.D. The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families. Clinical Report, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Social Networking Privacy: How to be Safe, Secure and Social. February 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Responsive Classroom. Time-Out & Teaching Self-Regulation. July 28, 2014.

[14] Knorr, Caroline. Parenting, Media, and Everything In Between. May 5, 2011.

[15] Marcinek, Andrew. Digital Citizenship: Developing a Culture of Trust and Transparency. October 22, 2014.

[16] Weisgrau, Josh. Empowering Student Relationships With Media. April 28, 2015.