Beginning to Address Digital Citizenship in Teens with Limited Experiences

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Photo by Tim Pierce via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Digital citizenship isn’t about being active on the Internet — uploading your next Snapchat or updating your Facebook status. Digital citizenship means learning to protect yourself online and behaving in ways that keep your personal information secure, and educators can play a key role in teaching these skills. Some specific skills might include learning internet safety, protecting your privacy, and learning how to promote good social and digital footprints for success.

We hear about the idea of digital citizenship at our schools, but what is it really? Common Sense Education identifies digital citizenship as a way of “helping educators [to] teach safe, responsible, and effective technology use.” As a high school special education teacher, my job teaching digital citizenship has unique challenges because my students often need instruction fine-tuned to their level of understanding. It’s my goal to identify their strengths and weaknesses and guide them in a way that meets their individual needs.

Thanks to a U.S. Department of Education RTTT-D federal grant, all schools in my district have an initiative in place that allows for 1:1 Chromebook access for grades 6–12 — an amazing feat that has improved the likelihood of students having easy access to technology.

One of the challenges of teaching my students to be good digital citizens is their inevitable lack of proper access to technology-based learning tools — they don’t have the correct login for a particular program, a website is blocked or they’ve forgotten their password. I’ve become used to these roadblocks, and can help them navigate. Luckily, many of my students have smartphones, which helps us get around these barriers at the beginning of the year. Early on, I have them download apps to save their passwords, since memory and retaining information can be hard for those with processing disorders.

Last year, teaching students how to create a resume provided an important lesson on using the Internet safely. I had them log into the Chromebooks and develop resumes using an online program, but when I asked my students to leave personal information blank and enter it in a Word or Google Doc later when it was secure, they didn’t understand why. I had to explain that entering personal information online isn’t always the safest thing, especially if you aren’t sure of the security of the website. Some possible options for password managers can be found here.


I appreciate that my students want to use their computers to collaborate. I often assign them projects where they can add each other to their Google work -— they do this by clicking the “Share” button at the top right of their Google Doc. I always ask that they add me too, so I can keep track of changes made. I can also help them by making comments or revisions that they can fix by clicking the “Resolve” button on the right side of their screen.

Still, things don’t always go smoothly. One specific incident happened with one of my Resource English seniors. She’d been working on a presentation for more than a week, and when she came in to present her project, it was gone. Unfortunately, she had forgotten to log out of her shared Chromebook the day before, and another student in a later class had maliciously deleted all of her hard work. I then had to take steps to fix the situation with our administration.

  1. I had to decide on a way to help her earn her grade, even if we couldn’t recover the missing work.
  2. I had to find out who had deleted the work.
  3. I had to contact the administrative authorities and alert them to a possible bullying scenario.
  4. And, I had to contact our district tech department to see if there was any way to find the student’s work.

In the end, we were able to find some of the original project. She still had to add a few slides, but I allowed her some extra time to complete it. We also found out who had deleted the work, and that student was reprimanded. I used this specific lesson with my 9th-10th grade class later in the year to teach them about digital citizenship.

My experiences have taught me that not all students know how to correctly navigate the Internet and all of its resources on their path to digital citizenship. This year, I began by offering my students a safe and secure way to contact me and their classmates by using the Remind application on their phones. This ensures privacy from phone numbers on both my side and the student’s side - since you cannot see the other person’s number. Another resource I used is an online planner app -, which allows me to create a shared calendar with my students, and post it to their calendars. This app keeps my resource kids in charge of their own calendars, while still maintaining structure of their time management. My hope is that by consistently engaging with these new resources myself, I will help my next group of students develop digital citizenship skills that not only can they use, but that they can also share with their friends.