How to Teach Kids To Be Good Digital Citizens

Any child old enough to use a device that can access the internet needs guidance on how to navigate the digital world. Learn how to keep your kids—and their peers—safe with these lessons in digital citizenship.

Boy using laptop for homeschooling
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The internet is a vast world filled with many places for children to wander. In the same way we tell our kids to never get into a car with a stranger, most of us set online safety rules online before they click and go. But there's a lot more to navigating the digital world than that.

"When children are exposed to the internet, there will always be some level of risk of the effects of technology on their lives, and how that risk can change the dynamics of their development," says Yuhyun Park, Ph.D., a trained statistician and founder of the DQ Institute, which measures child online safety around the world and is on a mission to make the digital world a safer place. But unfortunately, there is relatively little parents can do to change the environment of the internet.

The better alternative? Empower our children with the proper tools to engage with technology, explains Dr. Park. "You have to raise your kids with the values of your family whether it's happening online or in person," she says.

What Is Digital Citizenship?

Digital citizenship is your self-monitored habits that effect the digital communities you enjoy, explains Dr. Park. Her team at DQ Institute helps parents to equip children with "digital intelligence," or a set of social, emotional, and cognitive abilities that enable individuals handle challenges and adapt to the demands of digital life.

Dr. Park pioneered the term digital intelligence because she wanted her children to safely converse with people online and become wise internet users in every capacity. Children with digital intelligence become good digital citizens who will better the digital communities they're a part of while still staying safe, explains Dr. Park.

As more and more kids are interacting digitally—with content and one another—the concept of digital citizenship becomes increasingly important.

Francyne Zeltser, Ph.D.

The sooner kids can relate that the rules they have in the real world exist in this largely invisible digital world, they will have a deeper grasp of longterm implications of their digital actions.

— Francyne Zeltser, Ph.D.

A Digital Citizenship Curriculum for Kids

"The digital world is a vast place for learning and entertainment. But it's in this digital world that kids are also exposed to many risks," says Dr. Park. Risks include things like cyberbullying, technology addiction, obscene and violent content, radicalization, scams, and data theft.

Follow this guide for the top skills Dr. Park believes young children need to be good digital citizens.

The Lesson: Digital Identity and Emotional Intelligence

Digital idenity is your online reputation. "You must have an awareness of the persona you have online and if it translates to the same person you are offline," says school psychologist Francyne Zeltser, Ph.D. Will what you present to the world online change who you are when you're actually face-to-face with someone? "This is incredibly important for children to understand because you don't want them to think their online behavior should differ from what they'd say or do in real life," she says.

Taking this a step further, ranting on social media or bad mouthing a friend is never OK because what you say online becomes your digital footprint; you can never escape or get rid of it, warns Dr. Zeltser. "Children also have to understand that what they say online doesn't have a tone attached to it, so it can be misinterpreted or understood differently than the way it was intended," Dr. Zelster says. People interacting and having conversations online leaves room for misinterpretation and hurt feelings.

How to teach it: The only way to increase emotional intelligence online is to make sure kids get enough in-person socialization. This is how they form strong relationships, so when they're interacting online with friends, they're able to continue interactions in a similar manner. If your child only ever talks to someone they think is a friend online and never in person, do they understand if they're really friends or not?

The Lesson: Digital Use

How much of your free time, outside of school (remote learning or in-person) are you spending on social media, gaming systems or watching videos? "There needs to always be a healthy balance between screen time and doing things that promote creativity, as well as physical and human interaction," says Dr. Zeltser. Even things like independent reading should be kept to a minimum online. Not only do your eyes need a break from staring at a screen all day long, but your children need to know how to function without reaching for a device.

"Parents need to make sure that kids detach from mobile devices and screens, especially when they have the opportunity to engage in person, like on playdates or in the community. Those opportunities have become rarer and rarer, and so when they do happen, kids shouldn't be watching movies, playing games, or watching videos on TikTok," she says.

How to teach it: If you want your kids to be good digital citizens, they need to have a life outside of their devices. This is what makes them individuals, and if they're only interacting in a digital forum, they aren't opening themselves up to opportunities in the real world, beyond the screen. Exposure to different activities and environments allow children to develop skills, grow confidence, and explore new hobbies and desires.

The Lesson: Digital Safety

Parents are probably most concerned about digital safety—namely things like cyberbullying, online sexual behavior or reputation risk, or violence and obscenities. After all, we've all seen what happens on playgrounds, and we've watched shows like 13 Reasons Why. Because 60 percent of kids have experienced at least one cyber risk, we have reason to be worried. "You can't protect your kids from the things that lurk on the other side, but you can teach them how to identify these risks and not engage," Dr. Zeltser says.

There are a few ways to teach digital safety to kids:

When appropriate, discuss news about cyberbullying and privacy issues with the whole family. "Use these events as icebreakers for conversations about what is and isn't OK online—and what you and your child can do during an unsafe situation," explains Dr. Zeltser. Ask how your child might respond to certain incidents, and invite feedback about how you can best help them with any issues online. Remember both of your responses are likely to change as your kids age, so keep these dialogues ongoing.

Monitor for behavior and mood changes. It's rarely advisable to betray your child's trust by scrolling through their text messages or private communications without their knowledge. This can easily backfire and lead to even more secretive behavior, warns Dr. Zeltser. Instead, watch out for mood changes and red flag behaviors, which may indicate something isn't going well online, experts say. "If your child seems increasingly or emotionally preoccupied with their phone or computer, it could be a warning sign," Dr. Zeltser says.

Come to bullying solutions together. Many kids don't tell their parents that they're being cyberbullied. Kids might feel embarrassed or ashamed to let you know they've been targeted. (Sometimes very young kids don't recognize teasing as bullying, but that's often how it starts.) They also might be afraid your involvement will make things worse. "Make sure you and your kid agree on what the outcome should be," suggests Dr. Zeltser. Rushing to a solution won't help—research shows that peers sticking up for one another or themselves is an effective defense against bullies.

Prepare your child for bad behavior before it happens. When online teasing begins, Dr. Zeltser suggests teaching your child to do the following: sign off the computer, ignore the attacks, and walk away. Don't retaliate or say things back to your bully. "They want to get a reaction out of you so you don't want to let them know their plan worked," she says. When possible, "block" the bully from communicating with you online or unfriend them to prevent further engagement. If it helps, have your child delete messages the bully may leave them so the unpleasantness isn't given any headspace. "When the bullying won't stop, start printing and saving messages and comments as evidence. As a parent, this is when you should step in," urges Dr. Zeltser.

When it comes to monitoring violence and obscenities, always have your child using their digital devices within view so you can keep an eye on what they're doing. If you wouldn't approve it on the TV screen, then your child should know it's not OK on the computer either.

The Lesson: Digital Privacy

As the lines between online and offline activity continue to blur, we're increasingly questioning the extent to which nefarious individuals may be lurking on our kids. We have to start teaching children about critical thinking. Researchers from the University of Maryland and Princeton University gave children a series of hypothetical scenarios, such as asking how they thought a child their age would respond if, for example, a sibling or parent looked at their device over their shoulder, or an unknown person asked for their address in an online message. Children in this study (5 to 11 years old) generally understood how privacy and security play out online. When asked about sites like YouTube, they seemed to understand that the person posting videos was displaying a personal experience for a wider audience to see.

Additionally, studies show nearly all kids interviewed knew that certain types of information, like passwords, were sensitive. They also recognized that it was OK to share information with certain people, like parents and teachers, but not with less familiar acquaintances or strangers. It's important to stress the reasoning behind these rules. (Why shouldn't you share passwords or personal information?)

How to teach it: Dr. Zelster suggests talking to your children about the digital world as young as possible. "Show your kids there is an online world that includes social media like Facebook and Instagram. Let them see and have an opinion about what you post, especially content that includes them. They will have a better understanding about how what they're doing in the real world is being shown online. And see how that makes them feel. Respect your child's opinion and avoid posting content that they are not proud to have shared," she says. "The sooner kids can relate that the rules they have in the real world exist in this largely invisible digital world, they will have a deeper grasp of longterm implications of their digital actions."

Raising Awareness of Digital Citizenship

Parents can also take a hands-on approach to teaching digital citizenship. For example, Meta (formerly Facebook) recently launched a digital citizenship game in the Messenger Kids app. The interactive activity is called "Pledge Planets," and it will help kids make smart online decisions. It builds on the Messenger Kids Pledge—"Be Kind, Be Respectful, Be Safe, Have Fun."

"Kids will explore different planets based on the tenets of the Messenger Kids Pledge, helping characters navigate various social situations and make decisions that lead to positive outcomes. By completing the games in each episode, kids will see that their kind, respectful, safe and fun actions have a big impact on those around them," according to a press release from Messenger.

Ericka Sóuter, a journalist and parenting expert, says this digital game is fun and engaging for kids. "Too often, we wait until there's a problem to have conversations about internet safety. But teaching kids how to use technology in a positive, healthy way early on will bring better experiences as they grow," she says.

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