How (and Why) to Talk to Teens About Digital Citizenship

November 17, 2015
Diana Graber
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

The first time I heard the word “sexting” was when my eldest daughter started high school about six years ago. She came home one day, looking somewhat shell-shocked, and told me that a girl she knew from her Junior Lifeguard program (this is San Clemente, CA) was in the principal’s office with the local sheriff and her parents, because she had sent a photo of herself in her bra to a boy.
Today, stories of teens engaging in the digital-age activity known as “sexting”—the transmission of nude, semi-nude, or sexually explicit material across digital channels—are all over the news. From Colorado to New York and North Carolina, teens found sending and receiving sexting messages have been suspended from school and, in many cases, also face very serious criminal charges. This unfortunate collateral damage of the digital age reminds us that just because kids seem incredibly adept at using their digital devices doesn’t mean their brains are always in sync with their technological know-how.

A case for digital citizenship in schools

Remember, the teenage brain is full of unfinished business. The pre-frontal cortex, that part of the brain responsible for good judgment, keeps developing throughout puberty and beyond. So without the judgment center operating at full throttle, teens are bound to make poor choices. Unfortunately, many of these choices end up online, where they live forever for the entire world to see.
But kids are much less likely to make poor choices if they have a chance to consider alternatives and/or know the consequences of their online actions. That’s why it’s so important to teach them “digital citizenship.”
According to David Ryan Polgar, one of the founders of the first-ever Digital Citizenship Summit held recently in West Hartford, CT:
A digital citizen uses the web in an effective and responsible manner. A digital citizen is cognizant and respectful to the online community at large, while actively participating in a meaningful manner. 
With teens spending an average of nine hours a day using media—more time than they spend in school or with their parents—we can no longer look the other way when it comes to preparing them with the skills they need to use it wisely. The stakes are just too high.

So what are we doing about teaching kids to be safe online?

Thankfully there has been a growing call across the country for schools to teach digital citizenship—a broad set of lessons that encompass everything from online reputation management, privacy protection and maintaining safe online relationships to ethical use, online safety, information literacy, media literacy, and much more. Utah’s State Legislature recently passed House Bill 213, which “requires a school community to fulfill certain duties . . . related to safe technology utilization and digital citizenship,” and my own digital citizenship curriculum, called Cyber Civics, is now being taught in middle schools in 15 states.
Hopefully these positive developments will continue to snowball, because I don’t know about you, but I never want hear stories about teens in trouble for sexting again.

5 digital citizenship conversation starters

It’s important to have regular conversations with kids about their online activities, but sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. So to help you talk with a teen—whether that teen is your student or your child—about safety online, here are five conversation starters. Ask the teen:
1. Do you know what personal information is safe to share online, and what is not?

High school kids should NEVER share their own or another’s address, phone number, password information (even to friends), or offensive or sexually suggestive images or messages.
2. Some young people have felt pestered or pressured to send a sexually explicit text or photo to another. Has this ever happened to you?

There are serious legal consequences for both the sending AND the receiving of sexually explicit messages/photos.
3. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the time you spend online?

Children need help learning how to set boundaries for the time they spend with tech.
4. Do you know what a “digital footprint” is? Is your digital footprint an accurate representation of who you really are? Do you personally know all the friends and followers on your social networks?

Our digital footprint is comprised of all the things we post about ourselves AND the things others post about us. 
5. Have you ever been tempted to download music or a movie that you don’t have the rights to? Have you ever taken words from an online source and used them in a paper for school?

In addition to being ethical missteps, “stealing” the creative works of others can have serious consequences.

To prepare yourself to talk to kids about cybersafety, grab the Parent and Educator Guide to Digital Life Skills [PDF].

Diana Graber is founder of and, two organizations dedicated to helping adults and kids learn digital literacy skills. A long-time media producer with an M.A. in Media Psychology & Social Change, Graber is also a regular contributor on digital media topics to the Huffington Post and others. She was also Adjunct Professor of Media Psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP).

Schedule a Consultation

Learn how CPI’s training programs can benefit your organization.

Let's Connect