3 ways to be a better digital citizen, online and IRL

Practicing empathy, offering assistance, and staying safe are good behaviors online and off

PLCs-communitiesEd. note: Innovation In Action is a new monthly column from the International Society of Technology in Education focused on exemplary practices in education.

digital-citizenWalk down the street, look around in a restaurant, or watch people waiting in line and you’ll notice how fully technology has become integrated into our daily lives. Views of technology and its place in society can be seen in movies, television, and cultural references.

It has become such a part of what we do and who we are that it become to be defined as a sort of “digital” citizenship. So what describes a digital citizen?

In my book Digital Citizenship in Schools, I define a digital citizen as someone who shares ideas, makes purchases, plans activities, asks for answers, interacts both at work and in play and much more on digital devices (computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc.). In short: living within a digital world.

The technology has provided great opportunities for everyone using technology. These tools have increased our productivity and knowledge base in many ways (checking the weather, looking up facts), but these advantages come with a price. Now, by increasing these opportunities to connect, collaborate and engage with our personal and professional networks requires using and understanding these tools differently. Engaging in these behaviors forces us to act in new and sometimes conflicting ways—to be more social but also more individually focused on our technology. These opportunities to find and share information have increased our dependence on technology.

Being overly connected is resulting in FMO (Fear of Missing Out) or worrying what others are doing, saying, posting, liking, or friending at any time. This has become such an issue that some will keep their devices near them even when they go to bed (and will wake up and post/Tweet/chat in the middle of the night). How can users balance this idea of ultimate knowledge with being with others IRL (In Real Life)?

Next page: Empathy-building behaviors

As with everything there is balance. There needs to be an interaction of our two sides, our digital life and our real life. As our lives become overwhelmingly influenced by our digital interaction, we need a new set of rules to guide our behaviors.

It’s easy to lose touch with humanity when engaging with an online community, but being a digital citizenship means having empathy in all that we do. Having empathy is important in any context. However, in our real lives there are many more cues to guide our behaviors and to signal if there is an issue (facial cues, head nodding, a smile). Reading the written word can make it difficult to judge emotions in a digital environment. Online, systems have attempted to help—think emojis—but the lack of direct contact can make this process more difficult. This means communicating in a digital world requires more thought and time to consider the impact of our words, pictures, and videos.

To assist in this process, there are three focus points to help users of digital media practice good behaviors that can make them more empathetic and conscientious online and off.

Respect. Think of respect as a two-way street. Keep others in mind as well as yourself. When working toward empathy, we must think about the needs of others even before our own.

  • Be polite to others, even when they are not always polite themselves. Make sure that when you are online, you include others whenever possible, even if they are not connected to digital devices.
  • Remember that laws/policies/procedures that have been created to protect you and to help others. Without these it would be difficult for anyone to be productive.
  • Give others your attention. Some stores have signs that say that they will be willing to help you once you are done with conversations with others on your device. Your time is important, but so is theirs.
  • Remember that illegal downloading does affect others. It is not just the big record/movie companies that it hurts, but many others working in those industries. If you wouldn’t walk out of a convenience store with a candy bar, why would you download something that you had not paid to use?
  • Digital citizenship is about character and how you want to be seen by others. Do you want to be known as a good person? How will you show this to others?

Next page: How to stay safe online


  • Learn about the tools (computers, smartphones, and tablets) and applications (software, apps, and programs) that run on them.
  • Help others learn these skills as well. There are many ways that someone can communicate with others using technology. Do we communicate with our students in the same way as we do with their parents (most likely not)?
  • Find ways to keep up with technology changes. The belief that students are smarter with technology is not necessarily true, but they are more willing to pick up how to use the tools from others. What is popular today may not be tomorrow.


  • By protecting ourselves we also can help to keep others safe as well. We are all a part of the system that makes up the online world and if we cause harm or infect others because we do not have virus or malware protection we hurt the system.
  • Point out to others when they are about to make wrong choices. Help them to find a better way so that we all can benefit from technology. So much information is now online we need to be aware of what we say and also what others might say about us or in our name. It is important to be aware of your own digital tattoo—or those permanent marks we leave behind in social media, e-mail, or other posts.
  • Remember, technology has to do with balance, knowing how much and when to use it. Students are being encouraged to use the technology in schools and homes at an early age. Show them that there needs to be time to go out and be with others. Technology has provided opportunities to become more efficient; let’s use this time to get out and be with others as well.

Dr. Mike Ribble is director of technology for a district in Kansas. He is co-chair of ISTE’s Digital Citizenship Professional Learning Network (PLN).

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