6 Things to Cover When Talking About Digital Citizenship

Why Digital Citizenship?

When your child receives their first device — or perhaps even gains access to shared smartphones, tablets, or computers in your home — it’s helpful to prepare them to engage in the online world by talking about digital citizenship. The concept of digital citizenship can help children understand the similarities between navigating a physical community or neighborhood and navigating the digital world. In the same way that citizens of a town do their part to keep the environment clean, safe, and enjoyable for all, a “digital citizen” must do the same.

Think about how you approach conversations about topics such as safe driving, alcohol, drugs, pornography, and sexuality with your kids. You want them to take these topics seriously and know they can trust you, come to you with questions, and feel safe in the conversation. The same goes for technology conversations.

Technology is amazing, and when the right steps are taken, it’s a wonderful tool that can educate, connect, and inspire. At the same time, when technology is misused or abused, consequences can be damaging, life-altering, and have negative ripple effects.

Here are six digital citizenship topics you can talk about with your child to prepare them to engage well in the online world. Don’t stress about having all these conversations at once. And it’s OK if you don’t cover all of them right away. You know your child best, and you likely know the areas best to discuss.

Also, Google has created a Be Internet Awesome guide for parents to use with their children to teach them “the fundamentals of digital citizenship and safety so they can explore the online world with confidence.” It’s another great tool to use with them to cover this important topic.

1. Digital Citizenship: Media

When it comes to digital media — photos, videos, messages, and audio — initiate conversations with your child about what is appropriate to view, send, and receive as a wise digital citizen. Rather than dictate terms and criteria, you can gain tremendous insight into your child’s world by inviting them to share their thoughts first. 

  1. What do you think is appropriate to view or send others?
  2. What should you do if someone sends you or asks you for something inappropriate?

Upon hearing their response to these questions, you can offer additional guidance and encouragement that builds their sense of confidence, not confusion, around the topic. Plus, you’re showing your child that you trust them enough to ask their perspective. Agree on what’s OK and what’s not OK and prepare your child for what to do if someone sends them something or asks for something inappropriate. Unfortunately, your child may be exposed to inappropriate content, such as pornography. Talking through how to respond in advance is helpful.

2. Digital Citizenship: Footprint

Beyond discussing what kind of content is proper to view, send, and receive, help your child understand the digital footprint that they make as a digital citizen.

Like a footprint in concrete, emphasize the permanent nature of sharing anything electronically and how it can have lasting effects on reputation, character, and livelihood. 

Debunk the popular myth that content shared on a “private account” is safe and secure. The ability to screenshot, save, edit, and repost anything allows other users to transform nearly any so-called private content into the public domain, so encourage your child to use discretion. Remind your child that material sent to just one person can be found by anyone.

It’s also critical to understand ownership of content. Social and digital media companies own all content (including messages) on their platform, making it nearly impossible for users to have any true sense of privacy online. 


3. Digital Citizenship: Manners

Have a discussion with your child on the importance of showing respect to themselves and others when engaging online. When interacting with others strictly through screens, a sense of anonymity can overpower a sense of dignity. 

When we’re connecting face-to-face, body language and expressions give us clues, but many of those clues aren’t available through a screen. You can’t see faces, hear tone of voice, or notice when someone starts shifting their feet because they are uncomfortable. Talk with them about what it looks like to be just as kind online as they are in person.

Words, images, behaviors, and attitudes that a child would never display in person can manifest online in the form of a “dual personality” or fake profile. Explain how this duality is unhealthy and unfair to everyone involved, and the best policy is to be authentic, both in-person and online. Ultimately, this leads to healthy relationships in real life.

4. Digital Citizenship: Security

In the same way that physical keys provide security to a house, car, or personal property, help your child recognize the importance of safeguarding the “keys” to their digital property and their devices. As they’ve likely never been the victim of identity theft, hacking, or cyberattacks, you may have to use analogies and personal stories to explain the gravity of this.

Password management is another important discussion point. For many families, a password management system, like 1Password, is a helpful tool. It’s convenient. No more headaches trying to remember what password belongs with which account. Many of these systems have security protocols in place, so your child’s accounts will be less vulnerable to password-based attacks. 

5. Digital Citizenship: Downloads and App Accessibility

Think through whether or not your child will be allowed to independently download apps, games, upgrades, and software updates. If they are allowed, familiarize yourself with the various content ratings provided by tech companies so you can determine what level is appropriate for your child.

Amazon, Google Play, and Apple’s App Store have different rating systems, so age-appropriate content may vary from platform to platform. The use of a parenting review website, such as Common Sense Media, may offer additional insight. 

Customize parental controls for greater oversight on in-app purchases, purchases requiring a password, and automatic downloads. Remember, with purchasing power comes an additional layer of responsibility and accountability that your child may or may not be ready to handle, so approach this topic with discernment. 

It’s also important to note that some free apps (specifically games) allow users to make “in-app purchases,” such as adding tools to solve a puzzle or to get to the next level. Once an app is downloaded from an app store, there isn’t always clear communication within the app that the “extras” will cost money, and any unintentional purchases will be charged to the credit card on the account (even if your child is not able to download new apps). Before allowing your child to download an app, especially a game, it’s important to research if it includes these hidden costs and set up clear guidelines for how your child will use it. 

You can learn more on our blog about Apple parental control and Android parental control.

6. Digital Citizenship: Expectations

Once you’ve had an open, honest conversation with your child about the best practices and family policies on device and Internet usage, it can be a good idea to create a “Family Technology Agreement” to memorialize what you’ve discussed and keep all parties accountable.

Above all, the most effective way parents can help their children succeed in the digital era is to keep communication open and honest.

You can use our Family Technology Agreement at the end of our e-book, Digital Parenting for Devices, or reference it as inspiration to create your own. Approach it as a family project with each member offering input for the suggested guidelines and consequences. 

While a document like this can be perceived as restrictive to your child, talk about how it actually helps them avoid getting in trouble and surprise consequences. Conflict often arises when unspoken expectations are not met. An agreement like this ensures that everyone understands what’s expected and what the consequences will be in advance. If you agree to specific consequences, it’s important to stick to those when the time comes, no matter how harsh, inconvenient, or soft they may feel.

Beyond Digital Citizenship

As you prepare your child to function well in the online world and be a responsible digital citizen is just the beginning. Our e-book also will guide you in how to prepare your children to respond to potential online dangers, talk about parental controls in a way that helps your child experience freedom, and create a Family Technology Agreement. In fact, we even have a great example that you can download and complete together.

Download your copy of our e-book today!

Canopy ebook on internet safety and parental controls


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