Lesson Progress:

Digital Citizenship

Lesson Content

Inquire: We are All Digital Citizens


We are all becoming digital citizens as we spend more and more time online. We communicate using social media, instant messaging, and video calls. We shop online with the ability to order even our groceries via the Internet. Online high schools and colleges continue to grow moving education into the virtual world. As we continue this transition toward digital citizens, there are responsibilities we must learn.

Once you have completed this lesson, you will be able to understand the definition of digital citizenship, recognize how it relates to life in an online digital world, recognize the laws and rights that exist within the digital world, and be able to evaluate behaviors in terms of positive digital citizenship.


Big Question

We spend so much of our time online, but do we know how to use the power and freedom of the Internet in an ethical and responsible way?

Watch: Are You a Good Digital Citizen?

Read: Being a Digital Citizen

What is Digital Citizenship?

As the Internet continues to spread around the world, people are spending more and more time online. Estimates show that as of 2012, over 90 percent of the world’s population had some form of access to the Internet. Social media has become a primary way for many people to communicate with friends, family, and complete strangers worldwide. People are becoming citizens of the Internet.

To be a digital citizen means using information technology to regularly and effectively engage with others online. For people to accomplish these interactions, they must understand the responsibilities, ethics, and etiquette that govern the online world.

Living Life Online

DecorativeMany of us now live much of our lives online. With the digital world, you can communicate, commerce, even take educational courses. Think for a moment about what that means.

The ever-expanding options for digital communication allow people to keep in constant communication with anyone, anytime, and anywhere in the world. With this comes new opportunities to communicate and collaborate, to share knowledge, and experience other cultures across physical boundaries and vast distances. It comes with dangers. The perceived anonymity that the Internet provides leads many people to do and say things that they would not do and say in the real world. People forget that any post on social media may be available for everyone to see, and that a username will not prevent people from discovering the true identity of those posting.

The Internet has also changed the way in which we conduct commerce. Online shopping is rapidly overtaking the old market economy with billions of dollars spent annually as it becomes commonplace to order everything one needs online. You can buy everything from clothing to cars, medication, and toys. You can even order groceries online, and they ship to your front door in days. However, for every legitimate and legal business exchange that takes place across the Internet, there is an equal amount of illegal exchanges taking place. The pirating of software, illegal gambling, and sales of counterfeit and stolen merchandise are some of the illegal exchanges common on the Internet. The freedom to buy and sell to anyone in the world with ease is a double-edged sword. Users must learn to be responsible consumers in this new digital economy.

For education, look at this lesson you are viewing right now. Online courses have become a growing portion of the education sector, with over 80 percent of college students taking at least one online class, and many completing their entire degree plan online. The flexibility and power of these digital courses are a boon to many as it allows them to work more at their own pace, but it can prove difficult for those who need the structure present in a traditional classroom. At the same time, many online for-profit colleges have appeared over the last decade to prey on students while providing lackluster educations.

Law in the Digital World

It can be hard to keep track of all the laws that govern the Internet as every country, and in some cases, individual states, have their own specific regulations relating to different aspects of how their citizens must conduct themselves online. Beyond these regulations, there are some fundamental laws and rights that should govern the behavior of all digital citizens. Using the Internet ethically and responsibly help form the foundation of these laws.

DecorativeUnethical use of the Internet manifests itself in form of fraud, theft, and other similar actions. Some of the unethical uses may not qualify as unlawful in the real world, but are seen as unethical and immoral actions on the Internet. Users must understand that theft of another person’s work or property online is a crime. Despite the fact that the property may be completely virtual, such as artwork or a story, claiming it without permission is wrong. This happens most often on social media where images, videos, and other digital creations are often shared without attribution. As content creators share their work across the Internet, the original creators’ names are quickly lost over time.

The digital world creates an environment where cyberbullying is abundant. This refers to harassing others by spreading racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful content in attacks on individuals and groups. This unethical use of the Internet often borders on the criminal, and new laws are being put into place to prosecute those who engage in it, be it in the digital realm or the real world.

Then, there are the truly digital crimes: hacking into other people’s information, downloading pirated movies and music, creating and spreading viruses, and stealing identities. These are all unethical behaviors, and we must be responsible digital citizens and refrain from committing such crimes. It is also important that we participate in actions that help protect ourselves and others from these crimes.

Digital Security

Because of the nature of the Internet, every one of us provides a possible access point for criminals to attack others. The network that we belong to, that connects us all across the web, provides us with easy access to so many people, but it also provides criminals the same easy access if we don’t work to prevent it.

Digital security involves protecting a computer and its connection to the Internet from attack by outside users. Through the use of both hardware and software, users can harden their systems. Hardening helps to not only block unauthorized access, but also to protect systems and files from theft and corruption by viruses and spyware.

On the hardware side, it can include routers with built in firewalls to prevent access. SIM chips and smart cards prevent the use of a device unless the item is present. Devices such as optical or fingerprint scanners are meant to prevent access unless a specific person unlocks a device.
Software consists primarily of antivirus, antispyware, and even software-based firewalls. There is also the use of passwords, passcodes, and digital signatures to prevent access to devices. More often, multiple levels of these hardware and software solutions combine to ensure that even if a hacker compromises one layer, a secondary protection will ensure the safety of the system and its data.

Digital Ethics

As we spend more of our time online, we must all learn to be good citizens of the digital world. It becomes important that we are also taught the social rules and etiquette that govern this digital world, much like when we teach people the rules of being a citizen of a local community or country. At its core, digital citizenship is about ethics and responsibility.

Reflect: Do You Pirate?


The Internet makes it easy to find and download things like images, music, and movies, but how often do you find yourself downloading things that you aren’t sure are legal?

Expand: Think Before You Post

Digital Reputation

As we spend time online, we create digital reputations for ourselves. Every social media or blog post we make, and every article we share, paint a picture of who we are. It is important to know that digital content is never gone; any content is recoverable if someone tries hard enough. That means every picture, questionable comment, or bit of gossip you share can eventually come back to haunt you. This can impact you, your family, or even your job. You must remember that you have full control over this; you choose what and where you post.

Social Media

DecorativeSocial media has become a major means of communication for millions worldwide. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and others, people are sharing their lives with the world. But, think about the types of things we share.

Before posting anything to the Internet, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would I share this with my parents?
  • Could this hurt my career or relationship?
  • Could this hurt the career or relationship of someone I know?
  • Is this related to anything illegal?
  • Would I feel uncomfortable yelling this out in a public place?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, think twice about posting it. For instance, you and your friends go to a party and become intoxicated. You take a photo and think about posting it to Facebook because the photo amuses you, and maybe others will find it funny too. Consider if one of your friends is underage, or works as the public face of a company. That image could cause them a great deal of trouble.

Similarly, what if you do something as simple as insult your boss in a post? You might think that only your friends and family will ever see that post, but with the ability of social media to spread information, it could easily end up in the eyes of your employer. At the very least, this would make your working relationship worse, but it could also get you fired depending on the post’s content. Even worse, other companies looking to hire you may see such a post and decide to choose a different candidate.

It is also easy for others to copy something once it is on the Internet. Even if you later delete your post, it still may start spreading to other places beyond your control.


Cyberbullying has become a major issue in recent years. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of adults experienced cyberbullying or have witnessed it happen. Cyberbullying consists of the use of technology to target an individual to torment, threaten, humiliate, and generally or maliciously harass. This can be in the form of racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful slurs and images. It can be sexual harassment through the use of sexually charged language and images, or it can simply consist of text and images meant to embarrass and humiliate the target.

While the majority of people do not intend to engage in cyberbullying, it is important to pay attention to what you post online. What you consider a harmless joke may appear to others as an attack. To avoid this, remember the questions listed above when posting anything to social media. Think about the potential impact your post may have and whether you would feel attacked if someone else posted a similar item to or about you.


It is important to remember that everything you post online says something about you. The nature of the Internet allows information you may think is hidden to be visible to unintended audiences. The nature of the Internet means that everything can and will eventually find its way out to a broader audience. Even if you attempt to delete something, once it is on the Internet, it will always be on the Internet somewhere. It is always important to think about what you share on the Internet, and how you react to what you find there.

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like. Once you are finished taking the quiz, click on the “View questions” button to review the correct answers.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Nine Themes of Digital Citizenship

A website containing a number of resources related to digital citizenship and digital ethics


The U.S. government-backed site related to bullying, both in the real world and online, providing information and resources to help combat and prevent it

The WIRED Guide to Digital Security

A guide providing a number of security tips and tricks presented in an easy to understand and entertaining way

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • cyberbullying
    the use of technology to target an individual to torment, threaten, humiliate, and maliciously harass
  • digital citizen
    the act of using information technology to regularly and effectively engage with others online

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by David Thomas for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Media Sources

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