What is Digital Citizenship?

I spend a lot of time thinking about digital citizenship. I mean, a LOT. I’ve been on a quest to author a concise and digestible definition of the term since my appearance at the Digital Citizenship Summit back in October; I’m going to try now to finally get that definition worked out.

A host of definitions for digital citizenship already exist. Ribble’s (2015) is probably the most widely used definition: “the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.” Heick (2013) settled on “Self-monitored participation that reflects conscious interdependence with all (visible and less visible) community members” – but what a mouthful that is, and what would that mean to the average person who has never heard the term “digital citizenship” or stopped to fully consider his own digital actions? ISTE’s (2016) Digital Citizen student standard states that “Students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.” The good folks at Cyberwise (2015) describe digital citizenship as an essential step to becoming media literate. 

I believe it’s important to involve students in conversations about digital citizenship, so I asked two of them what they thought. My extremely wise 10-year-old friend Olivia van Ledtje (personal communication, June 6, 2017) told me that “digital citizenship is being connected to the world” and that “digital citizenship is about knowing that learning is deeper when you share your thinking in global ways.” Curran Dee (personal communication, June 8, 2017), another 10-year-old acquaintance, told me that “digital citizenship has to be done, not just said.”

From my recent experience writing ISTE’s new PD curriculum on the Digital Citizen standard, I know that ISTE’s approach to students as digital citizens includes thinking in terms of students’ digital identity, their skill in interacting with others, and their ability to be agents for positive change in the world. The new ISTE Standards for Educators (2017) will be released at the end of the month, and from looking at the draft copies and talking to a colleague who was involved in developing these new standards, I know that these standards address not “things to do,” but rather “ways to be.”

That’s a lot of definitions to choose from! Fortunately, there are common threads. Safe and responsible. Proactive, not reactive. Interdependence and connections. A way of being, not a checklist of things to do. I knew that all of these components would need to be included in my own definition. So here’s my shot at it:

Digital citizenship is the creation of positive personal connections and proactive social change through the purposeful and empathetic navigation of online spaces. 

As educators, pretty much everything comes down to relationships. I want teachers and students in my district to build positive personal connections both in real life and online. I want them to know the power they have to make a real difference in the world, whether that’s being an upstander when they witness cyberbullying, organizing groups around a cause they’re passionate about, or figuring out how to design something on a 3D printer. And I want them to be confident, proactive, and empathetic users of this great tool we call the Internet.


Cyberwise. (2015). What is digital citizenship? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH6869bD8iU 

Heick, T. (2013). The definition of digital citizenship. TeachThought. Retrieved from http://www.teachthought.com/the-future-of-learning/digital-citizenship-the-future-of-learning/the-definition-of-digital-citzenship/ 

ISTE. (2016). ISTE standards for students. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/docs/Standards-Resources/iste-standards_students-2016_one-sheet_final.pdf?sfvrsn=0.23432948779836327

ISTE. (2017). ISTE standards for educators (draft copy). URL will be made public soon.

Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools (3rd ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society of Technology in Education.


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