Digital citizenship

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Last Update

This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, May 2017


See also Bullying behaviours in the workplace | Civic media | Digital identity | Information literacy | Makerspace in libraries | Media literacy | Social media | Web 2.0

What is digital citizenship?

Digital citizenship refers to citizens of the Internet (netizens) "who use the Internet regularly and effectively" in a responsible, legal and ethical manner. Concepts associated with digital citizenship include using technology appropriately across the lifespan, and issues such as digital rights and responsibilities. Many educators argue that digital citizenship is more about a mindset and worldview than any set of discrete rules. The goal of digital citizenship is to prepare learners for a future steeped in online technologies. In digital citizenship, a sound philosophical approach and values-based approaches are more important than any awareness or use of specific technologies. According to Ribble's Nine Themes of Digital Citizenship, " citizenship can be defined as the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use."

In an age of online media, digital citizenship is a concept introduced early into the school system in order to teach young people about the importance of developing their digital skills. This set of digital skills or literacies must be taught within a framework of respecting the rights of others. In fact, digital citizenship requires the development of skills in media literacy, civic media and collaboration 2.0. Newly-literate cyber-citizens use blogs, Twitter and Facebook effectively and demonstrate sound social networking skills. Digital citizenship involves full electronic participation in participatory spaces and in building a digital identity. It typically involves guarding against unethical behaviours and upholding high standards of ethical conduct in all online spaces.

Finally, digital citizenship should aim to engage young people in a concern for others. Mike Ribble is an American educator who collaborates with Gerald Bailey about digital citizenship. Ribble defines digital citizenship as an understanding of "human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior. [Good digital citizens] advocate and practice safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology; exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning, and productivity; demonstrate personal responsibility for lifelong learning; [and] exhibit leadership for digital citizenship." Ribble and Bailey have also written about the nine (9) elements of digital citizenship which include all kinds of examples of appropriate use of technologies in the digital age from not talking loudly on cellphones in public places to citing online sources properly in academic papers.

What is the library’s role in digital citizenship?

Digital citizenship is a term used to describe how people acquire and use their digital and online skills and experiences to achieve and develop their personal, professional and social roles. Similarly, digital literacy is used to describe the literacies associated with navigating digital and online information, knowledge and communications platforms. New literacies encompass an array of online tools, platforms and interactions, from filling in forms to taking responsibility in social media, searching for online scholarly information to producing multimedia resources. In our roles as digital citizens, are we continually developing and using our digital skills and digital literacies in order to navigate this ever expanding digital landscape? If so, where are these skills learned? informally on our own or more formally in classes and workshops? Libraries, often located at the nexus of the community in which they serve, have traditionally had information searching and information literacy goals and continue to play key roles in citizenship development. But what is their role in digital citizenship?

Respecting & protecting others online

At an elemental level, digital citizenship should involve a component of respect for others, and moral thinking, as we navigate online. According to Andrew Church, we can think of two-way or multiple layers of respect:

Respecting yourself and others

  • show respect for others at all times, and act with integrity
  • use language and topics that portray you in a positive light
  • don't post information that would would not want your mother, grandparent or employer to see
  • leave questions about your relationships, sexual activities or preferences, blank
  • use ethical approaches such as respect for others
  • respect the limitations of technology, intellectual property and privacy

Protecting yourself and others

  • think twice about information you post, what it will mean to outsiders seeing it
  • don't publish too much information about your activities or your schedule
  • set privacy settings to control access to your posts
  • be certain of any facts you post
  • protect the rights of others, including their intellectual property rights
  • have a zero tolerance for unacceptable behaviours
  • abide by fair use and fair dealing rules (see copyright)

Key websites

Cyberbullying & Bad Behaviour Online

Cyberbullying is defined as "...the use of the Internet and related technologies to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner. As it has become more common in society, particularly among young people, legislation and awareness campaigns have arisen to combat it...". In recognition of the impact of Facebook on cyberbullying, Facebook has started to award projects with funding to combat the problem among teens. For more information, see Define the Line a cyberbullying research project at McGill University in Montreal.

The use of information technologies to carry out hostile, hurtful online behaviours towards individuals or groups can have severe consequences on people within a community. Often, cyberbullying results in sending a victim into a tailspin of anxiety and social withdrawal. In extreme cases, the individual feels ostracized and may hurt themselves or others, and may be suicidal. Similar to other forms of bullying (in person), cyberbullying is often about a perpetrator who wants to gain power and control over someone. Those who bully seek ways to dominate others they perceive are weaker or more vulnerable. Information technologies can be used as a force for positive change in the world, but they can also be used to hurt and maim psychologically.

What role do librarians play in promoting sound digital citizenship?

It seems clear that teacher librarians in the primary and second school systems have a major role to play in advocating for better digital citizenship skills. Part of the equation in the primary school setting must inevitably focus on being a better citizen overall. After all, teachers are responsible for creating the kinds of educational environments that enable students (our future digital citizens) to participate fully in the physical world. This is a new area for librarians in public and academic libraries, but one which should be pursued with vigilance. Some forms of bullying are actually criminal acts, and under Canada's criminal code communicating with someone to cause fear for one's safety or reputation are punishable by law. Internet users may also be violating the Canadian Human Rights Act if they spread discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or disability. If you are being bullied or see someone being bullied, tell your local librarian to assist you. They may be able to help you find a way to make the bully stop.

Online Behaviours to Guard Against

  • Cyberstalking is a form of online surveillance, sending messages intended to threaten or intimidate, or simply spying on someone and on their online activities. There may or may not be an element of obsession.
  • Denigration is a type of harrassment that is used to post gossip about a person to damage his or her reputation, or to embarrass them somehow.
  • Exclusion is a form of social exclusion from online groups, forums and lists.
  • Flaming is a nasty, angry and vulgar way to denigrate the ideas of someone, or the person, and is a form of fighting online.
  • Harassment is a form of repeated offensive, rude and insulting messages sent to someone to intimidate or belittle.
  • Impersonation is a willful use of someone's digital identity to pose as that person, which may or may not involve breaking into someone's personal e-mail and social media accounts. The goal is often to belittle, embarrass or denigrate another person; occasionally, identity theft is the goal.
  • Outing is a digital form of revealing someone's secrets or embarrassing them through posting information or images about them online.


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