What is digital citizenship?

Emma McGowan 27 Oct 2021

Online life is real life — it’s imperative that we all treat it accordingly

Citizenship, as more commonly applied to people belonging to a nation, comes with both rights and responsibilities. For example, people living in democracies have the right to representation — but also the responsibility of voting. In the United States, citizens also have the responsibilities of serving on a jury when called and paying taxes. Some rights include the right to protest the government, the right to unwarranted search and seizure, and the right to freedom of speech, to name just a few. 

So if the digital world is borderless — and there’s no one government or leader that we’re expected to have allegiance to — what does it mean to be a digital citizen? Building on the physical world definition, let’s look at some rights and responsibilities of digital citizenship.

Rights of digital citizenship

A digital citizen is defined by Avast as a person who has access to digital technology with rights including freedom, security, and privacy.

As a digital citizen, you have the right to:

  • Access the digital world 
  • Privacy
  • Data protection
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of communication
  • Ownership of your own identity
  • Informed consent regarding collection of your data
  • Be forgotten
  • Anonymity 
  • Not be hacked, phished, or spied upon

Responsibilities of digital citizenship

As a digital citizen, you have the responsibility to:

  • Communicate respectfully, even when you disagree
  • Decline to share false information 
  • Respect the intellectual property rights of others
  • Not reveal the personal and private information of others 
  • Not break into cyber systems without permission
  • Understand what information should not be shared 
  • Protect your logins and passwords

As you can see, much of what’s needed to be a good citizen of your nation is needed to be a good digital citizen: Be respectful. Don’t steal. Take care of your fellow citizens. Be knowledgeable about your environment, including how to protect yourself and others. And hold your “government” (in this case, tech companies like those who provide both our technology and our web services, like social media) accountable when they violate our rights.

Why is digital citizenship important?

As our time spent online continues to increase, the digital world has become as important — or almost as important — as the physical spaces we occupy. The 1990s and early aughts internet term “in real life” (IRL), used to describe anything that happened offline, just isn’t accurate anymore. And, if trends continue, the youngest among us will be spending an even higher proportion of their lifetimes online. 

That’s why digital citizenship is important. Just as we all have to learn how to be citizens of our countries — both explicitly, from authority figures, and implicitly, through existing in society — we all need to learn to be good digital citizens. 

There are both micro and macro reasons why digital citizenship is so important. On the micro level, the personal interactions we have online — from digital communities on social media to messaging apps to comments sections — can have real and lasting effects on our mental health. Our brains haven’t developed the ability to know the emotional difference between online threats and “real world” threats, which means that negative interactions can spike our stress responses and lead to negative mental and physical health outcomes.

On the macro level, recent world events highlight how digital citizenship can have a direct impact on physical citizenship, in both beneficial and negative ways. For example, Twitter was vital to the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, helping activists communicate quickly and widely. However, Facebook has been a key player in the spread of disinformation, which has negatively influenced events ranging from the US elections to the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

In other words: Online life is real life. And it’s imperative that we all treat it accordingly.

Key digital citizenship facts

  • 4.8 billion people (61% of the world’s population) are online
  • Approximately 700,000 new users come online daily 
  • Online privacy is both a digital right and a human right
  • In absence of a government, our digital responsibilities are primarily to our fellow digital citizens 
  • The gap between the digital world and the “real” world is decreasing every day
  • Different governments have different perspectives on the rights and responsibilities of digital citizenship 

Digital citizenship lessons for kids

Digital citizenship has become part of the curriculum in many schools — but others need to catch up. Whichever side your child’s school falls on, here are some great resources for parents and educators to help kids become better digital citizens.

The Definition of Digital Citizenship — a succinct, somewhat academic definition of digital citizenship from the educators at TeachThought.

9 Rules For Digital Citizenship — a clear breakdown and printable infographic of the “rules” of digital citizenship, for young people. 

Digital Citizenship in Education — a landing page of resources on how to bring digital citizenship into the classroom, from ISTE.

What Your Students Really Need to Know About Digital Citizenship — walking through the “9 Key Ps” of digital citizenship, according to scholar Vicki Davis.

Everything You Need to Know to Teach Digital Citizenship — free, comprehensive digital citizenship lessons for grades K-12 from Common Sense Education.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace — a seminal writing by Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) founder John Perry Barlow.

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