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Digital Citizenship Lessons Start With a Simple Conversation

By LeeAnn Lindsey, Ed.D.
October 18, 2021
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Do you remember the public service announcements from the mid-2010s that featured different scenarios of parents (sometimes awkwardly) talking to their children about underage drinking?

If this doesn’t ring a bell, watch the video “Talk. They Hear You PSA." These PSAs were created by SAMHSA, the government agency that focuses on substance abuse and mental health services. The campaign’s message to parents was that you don’t have to have all the right words or know all the answers. Just start talking – because just having the conversation is what matters. Our kids are listening.

In my role as a digital citizenship enthusiast and consultant, I frequently field questions from both parents and educators about how to prevent kids from seeing harmful or inappropriate content online, how to keep them locked into (or out of ) certain apps and how to get them to stop obsessing over their phones.

I know those who ask are looking for advice that will make them feel more comfortable about kids having access to the world (the good, the bad and the ugly) at their fingertips. My response to many of these questions mirrors the parenting advice from the SAMHSA PSAs. You don’t have to have all the right words or know all the answers. Just start talking – because having the conversation is what matters. Our kids are listening.

Why is conversation so important?

Conversations promote reflection. When we invite students to talk about aspects of their digital lives they might not otherwise think about, we help them strengthen their “digital awareness.” Some research suggests that increased awareness can promote more ethical decision-making. Therefore, one important strategy is to engage students in collaborative dialogue prompting them to connect their digital actions with the way they think and feel (physically and mentally) so that they can become more intentional digital decision-makers.

When students build understanding with peers and a teacher or mentor, they can learn from one another and begin to develop their own personal terms of service. Reflective conversations can pave the way for students to become better digital citizens.

What should I talk about?

Talk about your own experiences thinking through digital decisions. Talk about the times you’ve gotten it wrong and learned from that experience. For me, it could be about that one time I saw a news article that upset me and then shared it with my social media network and tagged my legislator. I later realized the article was several years old (oops!). I learned to check the date of publication before sharing with my network (and especially a political figure)!

I could also tell students about my ongoing struggle to put down my phone in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, and ask if they, too, struggle with this.

Seriously, our students love hearing about when we got it wrong. It helps them realize that we, too, are learning how to navigate the digital landscape. It also helps to build a side-by-side relationship through which we can share and learn together. Re- member to share success stories too!

Ask questions about their experiences navigating digital life and how it impacts them. Inquire about how they feel and where they might need guidance.

Today, a growing number of kids use and own devices. In fact, our Gen Z students have not experienced life prior to social media and the internet. Some- times adults wrongly assume that our youth know it all when it comes to technology. The reality is that being a digital native means they are comfortable tapping and swiping – it does not mean that they understand digital rules of engagement. Conversations can help us develop a symbiotic relationship with our students where they assist us with navigating a tool or an app, and we help them navigate the personal and social aspects of their use.

In a world of ever-evolving technology that allows for infinite connectedness, digital citizenship education ( is critical. Instead of relying on blocking and locking, and telling them they can’t, we can help our students develop digital decision- making skills they can apply now and in the future. We can do this by modeling the behaviors we want them to adopt and, most importantly, by talking to them about their digital lives.

Because having the conversation matters. Our kids are listening! Seriously, our students love hearing about when we got it wrong.”

Digital Citizenship - ISTE U edtech PD

LeeAnn Lindsey, Ed.D., is the founder and principal consultant for Edvolve, an adjunct professor for the Mary Lou Fulton teachers college at Arizona State University and co-chair of ISTE’s digital citizenship PLN. She served on the core leadership team for the ISTE Standards for Students and the ISTE Standards for Educators. You can follow Leeann on Twitter @sundevilleeann or visit her website for more #digcit musings.