Digital Citizenship: Building Digital Skills, Becoming Digital Literate, and Mastering Netiquette

Digital citizenship includes learning digital skills, becoming digital literate, and navigating the digital world as an extension of the real world.
Susan Fourtané
Digital Citizenship PshychoBeard/iStock

Building a digital society means its citizens must learn how to become good digital citizens. But, what does it mean to be a good digital citizen, and what digital citizenship really is? 

Digital citizenship is not a new concept. However, the recent global crisis, which has demanded social distancing and prioritized work from home, has brought the topic of digital citizenship back into a front seat; this is due to an increase of people working from home rather than from the office. Virtual environments have become the number one place where individuals have social interaction.  

Due to lockdown, students of all levels around the globe are attending online classes in virtual environments, or virtual conference-like settings rather than the usual classroom. What is the best way of navigating and interacting within these online settings?

Even more people are using online meeting rooms, such as Zoom, or Google Meets to gather with co-workers, friends, or family members for business or social meetings, group movie-watching via Netflix Party, book clubs, and even virtual happy hours on a Friday evening after work. Not to mention the many virtual conferences taking place now, events which have been replacing the annual live event gatherings since February 2020. Most conference organizers do not expect to resume live events until 2021. 

After 33 years since its inauguration back in 1987, MWC Barcelona (formerly known as Mobile World Congress), which was set to run from February 24 to 27, 2020, was the first large exhibition and conference event cancelled for 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Others have followed suit for the past five months.

Since February, the world has been forced to embrace more technology faster than ever before, resulting in a noticeable acceleration in the adoption rates. This includes technologies that some people were reluctant to adopt before, such as working in virtual environments. Citizens are increasingly more present virtually, pretty much for everything concerned with their work, studies, entertainment, exercising, and social life. This trend is rapidly increasing and thus, digital citizenship education becomes paramount.

Digital Citizenship education

In educational institutions, digital citizenship is required as much as being prepared to face the labor market. Teachers and professors at all levels in the educational system are teaching the workforce of the future to both be ready to be an integral part of the work life ahead as well as graduating as good digital citizens. 

Digital citizenship: What it really is

Digital citizenship is the ability to engage with the Internet and technology in a safe and meaningful way. The ability to successfully participate in society online directly affects political and economic opportunity. In the past, educated citizens played a paramount role in promoting democracy and economic growth in nations across the globe. In a similar manner, the Internet has expanded these capabilities into the digital world.

The book Digital Citizenship: The Internet, Society, and Participation, written by researchers Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Ramona S. McNeal argues about the benefits of society online as an economic opportunity and as a tool for civil engagement.

Digital citizenship involves thinking, being, and acting online. Digital citizenship involves critical thinking and not trusting everything you see or read on social media. Digital citizenship is to act responsibly in how you communicate and behave online.                                                                                                                                         

Ideal good digital citizens conduct themselves in the virtual world with the same correctness and respect for others as if they were in the real world. After all, the virtual world is just an extension of the real world.

Good digital citizenship

Being a good digital citizen is not only about being online and being a safe Internet user. Good digital citizenship also implies being responsible, having smart behavior in digital environments, and having respect for others in the same way you would behave and respect others in a real environment. 

A good digital citizen avoids harassment and hateful speech while interacting with others online. A good digital citizen respects digital property.

In their book, Karen Mossberger et al defined digital citizens as "those who use the Internet regularly and effectively." In order to qualify as a digital citizen, a person generally must have extensive skills, knowledge, and access to using the Internet through computers, mobile phones, and Web-ready devices to interact with private and public organizations.  

Digital citizens often use Information Technology (IT) extensively, are avid social networks users, participate in Web community sites, and behave correctly toward their fellow digital citizens. Digital citizenship begins when any child, teenager, or adult signs up for an email address, posts pictures online, uses e-Commerce to purchase merchandise online, and participates in any electronic function that is B2B or B2C. However, the process of becoming a digital citizen goes beyond simple Internet activity.

Digital literacy

According to the American Library Association (ALA), digital literacy is “the ability to use information and communication technologies (ICT) to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”

The essential digital skills required to achieve digital literacy include:

  • Using digital devices to find and handle information correctly and responsibly

  • Creating and editing using proper language, grammar, and spelling

  • Communicating, collaborating, and net etiquette (or netiquette)

  • Transacting

  • Being safe (online security), respectful, and responsible online.

  • Digital culture 

  • Critical thinking

It is important to note that being digital natives who know how to send a text message on WhatsApp, post pictures to social media, or think of themselves as Instagram experts are not considered digital literates by any means. 

Digital skills vs. digital literacy

Just as there is a difference between knowing and understanding, there is a difference between having digital skills and being a digital literate. Digital literacy includes a range of abilities, skills, and behaviors which not only show knowledge but also understanding of how things work in the digital world.

The most common example is e-mail. Someone who possesses the digital skill to create an e-mail account is not considered a digital literate unless they are at the very least able to recognize spam, know the harm phishing e-mails pose, and how to prevent a phishing attack.

Addressing appropriate technology behavior

As mentioned earlier, digital citizenship is based on etiquette, communication, education, access, commerce, responsibility, rights, safety, and security. Digital citizenship is a priority in schools, enterprises, governments, and society as a whole. Technology integration plays a paramount role in building a teaching and learning strategy for preparing citizens to live, work, and interact in the 21st century.

Not long ago, The Washington Post published an article entitled Let's tell kids what they can do online, instead of what they can't do, in which Stacey Steinberg, supervising attorney for the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic with faculty expertise in Digital Citizenship, questions how to create a safe learning environment as "a place where kids would know how to act, how others would act, and how the teacher would respond when things went wrong." 

Steinberg reflects on how parents and teachers give children rules on device usage, and how those rules that circle around technology most of the time tend to focus on what children should not do instead of what they should do. "What if we reframed these conversations to empower our kids instead of inhibiting them?," she says. 

Indeed, that is the way it should be. Basically, parents and educators should provide children with "age-appropriate opportunities to develop skills for effective and safe technology usage."  

Rather than using the energy to show children all what they should not do based on fear and discouraging any natural curiosity, a better approach is to find ways to show them the positive side. What about showing them the way how they can develop digital skills that will contribute to their digital literacy?

Sometimes the problem is that parents and teachers cannot show what they do not know. "We learned how to communicate emotions using facial expressions, not emoji. We have no digital parenting road map, and this inexperience often leads to fear, which informs our approach," says Steinberg. 

The first step is then to learn first. The Safer Internet Day is celebrated each year and offers ways to empower children to become good digital citizens, empowering them with knowledge rather than creating fear and shame. The Safer Internet Day international campaign inspires positive changes online in order to raise awareness of online safety issues, and calls to participate in events and activities right across the globe.

Safer Internet Day aims to create both a safer and a better Internet, where everyone is empowered to use technology responsibly, respectfully, critically, and creatively, thus, becoming digital literates and good digital citizens.

Cyberbullying prevention

A comprehensive list of tips to help stop cyberbullying published by Connect Safely is a useful guide for parents, educators, and young people. The PDF full guide includes advice for ending or preventing the cycle of aggression that some young people --and others not so young-- suffer in virtual environments, social media, Facebook groups, and other online spaces.

The Connect Safely Organization states at the end of the guide that "one positive outcome we do not often think about --or hear in the news-- is resilience." Many times, in business environments and industry settings resilience is considered an asset that will help in the future bringing positive outcomes, especially after a crisis. 

In a similar manner, surviving an episode of cyberbullying may develop greater resilience. By no means, however, cyberbullying should be justified. Yet, "we know the human race will never completely eradicate meanness or cruelty, and we also know that bullying is not, as heard in past generations, normal or a rite of passage," according to the guide. 

We know with certainty this to be true. We have known of cruelty and meanness during the entire history of humanity, from the very beginnings. There is no reason to believe humanity will dramatically change in our lifetime. Or the lifetime of today's youngest generations. This is the reason we need to keep on working to eradicate it for the generations to come. 

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