How Do We Teach Kids Digital Citizenship?

How Do We Teach Kids Digital Citizenship?

When you Google your full name, there is no small element of fear, especially with as easily recognizable name as ‘Marshbank.’ According to a questionably reputable name finder website, it is likely that I am the one and only Andrea Marshbank in the entire United States and, with simple deduction of common American names, we can assume, the world. I am an endangered species, an elusively rare breed, the South China Tiger of unique last names, and due to my singularity Google has no mercy on past internet follies. 

Luckily, it doesn’t seem that I have too many. Upon the initial Googling of my nomenclature, you are met with my current school biography page, a link to my Twitter handle, this lovely blog, and two articles I wrote for the Topeka Capital Journal at an internship in high school. One is on community art; the other is on zombies. It isn’t until you flip to the Google Images tab that my shiny, seventh grade forehead stares at you with the glow of a thousand suns. But even that isn’t too bad for playing the Schrodinger’s game that is Googling your full name. 

7th grade Andrea is the third Google Image result. Thanks, Google.

7th grade Andrea is the third Google Image result. Thanks, Google.


I’m lucky. During my own high school days, our teachers may have thrown out to a brief warning regarding online permanence once or twice. It wasn’t a concern to them. To give you a sense of the time, I recall when texting rose in popularity. It was the era of creating your own internet chat rooms that were password protected (to restrict access to the coolest of people) and when the sound of dial-up wasn’t so far away that we had forgotten those iconic beeps and buzzes. It wasn’t until college, at the KU School of Education, that it was rigorously pounded into my head: My online presence mattered. 

Today, my students are more aware than I ever was as a teenager. We talk regularly in our Seminar classes about the effect that their online presence can have on  their future career prospects. We watch videos, have discussions, and complete short writing assignments. I’ve even shown them my beautimous seventh grade Google Images photo. But even with all this effort, these conversations often seem like I’m shouting into the abyss. My students know that their snapchats are available for a lot of people to see, but yet they still post inappropriate or cruel things. They know that their social media accounts should have privacy protections, but they don’t set them. They know that this could affect major aspects of their entire life, but the majority of them don’t care. 

How are we supposed to force students to consider a future that they cannot tangibly comprehend? How do we make them think about their careers five or ten years from now, when all of their friends and peers are actively posting content that we are preaching is inappropriate? In all honesty, I can’t quite tell you. However, here are three ideas that I have found helped when talking to student about the dangers of social media and the benefits of practicing digital citizenship. 

#1 Stop over exaggerating. 

I know, I know. My diction throughout this blog has not been calm or collected or fully un-exaggerated. I am a little incensed by this issue, and I do believe it can have extraordinarily harmful effects that our teens aren’t considering right now. But we want to be realistic with our students. This shouldn’t be the anti-social media campaign that claims that one mistake with digital citizenship will 100%, absolutely ruin their entire lives no questions asked. Because, chances are, it won’t. And when it doesn’t, we’ll have lost all our credibility on the topic. 

Sending a silly-faced snapchat to your friend is probably fine. Posting yourself drinking an identifiable alcoholic beverage while underage could also be fine. But the likelihood of one of those causing severe life issues is significant when compared to the other. Likewise, tweeting out a negative message about your day is probably fine. Tweeting a hateful comment about an identifiable person could potentially be fine--but it’s likely to impede your life in a variety of ways. The likelihood of disruption increases with each act of risky behavior, and the subsequent severity of them, on social media.

Using real-world, believable language with students can have more meaningful, long-lasting effects. As high schoolers, students don’t need us to use scare-tactics. In fact, using those seems unrealistic in the long run. All-knowing absolutes like, “You will definitely need cursive in middle school” or “Your teachers will throw away unnamed assignments” are no longer useful. Talk to students like they are people, not kids, and let them make their own decisions. As much as it might heart my hurt my heart, because letting them make their own decisions leaves them prone to bad decisions, it’s a risk that we have to accept.

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#2 Ask students to value their future selves.

Asking a student what they want to be when they grow up is a question that holds more weight in high school than it did in middle or elementary. They are very near the time where their decision to choose a career or a collegiate path could have big impacts on their existence. And so, I encourage you to ask your students that question once again. Who will you be ten years from now? A doctor? A lawyer? Taking over the family business? Ask them to envision their lives. Where do they live, what does their house look like, what does their family look like? This could be formatted in a variety of discussion-based or student product-based lesson. You could have them create a powerpoint or write a personal essay--the possibilities are endless. 

Then, show them examples of social media gone wrong. Keep in mind that the most impactful examples will be the most recent and the most local. This isn’t to shame anybody’s mistakes, but using real-world examples is the best way to demonstrate that, “Hey, this is a thing that people have gone through” and encourage them not to be those people. 

#3 Encourage, don’t discourage, social media and internet presence.

I read once that it is just as important to have a presence on the internet as it is to have a professional and appropriate presence on the internet. I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t buy it. Wouldn’t the best option to avoid internet scandal be to just avoid having your name out there at all? 

It turns out that the answer to that is a strong no. It make sense. If you’re an employer, and you Google one candidate for a position but can’t find them anywhere online, you might be more likely to choose a different candidate who you Googled and found that they have a very positive influence on the community via social media presence. This isn’t about not being present on Google, this is about controlling your presence and having it build the type of first-impression you want it to have on employers or others who might be looking your name up. 

Social media is a powerful tool of communication. Never before have kids been able to communicate so quickly, and they need to be prepared to handle the responsibility of that. Decisions they make now have the potential to affect the rest of their lives. We want to do our best to make sure that those decisions are beneficial and their lives are only affected positively. However, at the end of the day, it’s truly up to them how they want others to view them on that Google search. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at andreamarshbank@gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter at @msmarshbank, Instagram at @amarshybank, and Linked In at Andrea Marshbank

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