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Digital Citizenship: Existing with Intentionality and Empathy

Rachel A. Briscoe

Lamar Univeristy

Digital Citizenship: Existing with Intentionality and Empathy

My mantra concerning Digital Citizenship is “Existing with Intentionality and Empathy.”

Our students’ digital presence is no longer separate from their “real lives” - the two are

completely interwoven. Their social lives, schoolwork, and how they engage with the world are

all tethered to technology. Their existence is a fusion of online and offline spheres. Jason Ohler

suggests that we should no longer ask students to separate their cyber lives from their lives at

school and instead, we should help them develop their character for their “one life” (Ohler,

2012). Thus, digital citizenship is not just a skillset to have or a hot topic; it’s essentially

speaking to the way our students should exist day-to-day.

The two primary mindsets that factor into Digital Citizenship are intentionality and

empathy. Technology is changing so quickly and so frequently and thus, it continues to impact

our society and our students’ lives in ways we can’t anticipate. We can’t let technology just

“happen” to us, passively standing by as we watch our students try to figure out how to navigate

the online sphere safely and positively. Thus, intentionality is a crucial component of being a

digital citizen. The root cause of almost every issue in the online sphere stems from a lack of

empathy. When technology is involved, it’s easy to forget the humanity of those we’re

interacting with online. When you’re only thinking about yourself and aren’t considering how

your choices impact others, it’s easy to hurt others. Since Digital Citizenship can essentially be

boiled down to how to treat other people while online, it is absolutely necessary to make

instilling empathy in our students as a primary goal of Digital Citizenship education.

Advisory Status Quo

I constantly wrestle with how to infuse important “real-world” non-academic values into

my classroom. I teach Geometry so unfortunately, I’m not naturally giving my students works to

read or discussing history or current events regularly. Every conversation that’s not about

triangles and proofs happens organically. However, my campus does have Advisory built into our

schedule once a week. This year, our Advisory is our 3rd-period class so that we already have

established relationships with the students. Every year, we are required by our district to

complete a series of Digital Citizenship lessons. Topics include cyberbullying, appropriate

posting (digital footprint), and internet safety, particularly when communicating with strangers

online. Unfortunately, these lessons are boring, unrelatable, and out of date - one lesson even

centers around a MySpace page. There is an acknowledgment that the platform is obsolete, yet

no one has taken the time to redesign the lesson. Additionally, we are an official “No Place for

Hate” campus and thus, we are required to deliver a series of lessons centered around anti-

bullying and suicide prevention. The fact that our students don’t relate to these lessons coupled

with the lack of grades associated with these activities results in a mostly disengaged class and

ineffective lessons.

Many teachers on our campus have recognized how Advisory needs to be improved in

order for us to see meaningful change in our students. This year, I am a member of the No Place

For Hate committee - a group of teachers, students, and parents who work to create meaningful

Advisory lessons. We have identified that we must first focus on developing empathy in our

students before we will be able to tackle the other issues our campus faces, including racial

tensions, a lack of awareness of privilege, and exclusivity. I believe that we must start with

empathy before tackling Digital Citizenship as well. In fact, I think that blending the two

concepts of Digital Citizenship and “No Place for Hate” would be most effective instead of

having separate, disjointed lessons. Linking moral, ethical, and compassionate behavior behind

the screen and away from the screen will help our students see how the choices they make online

are a crucial component of their humanity and character. Our campus clearly desires an overhaul

of our Advisory curriculum, and thus, I recommend a restructuring that involves not only student

education but student and teacher small groups and partnering with parents.


Ribble’s Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship (Ribble, 2015) align with the idea of

intentionality. In order for Digital Access (Element 1) to come to fruition, schools have to be

incredibly intentional about making sure every student has equitable access to be able to

participate in the digital sphere. Luckily, my campus is extremely intentional in this area as we

are one-to-one. Every student is issued a Chromebook and the school can also loan out hotspots

to students who do not have reliable internet access at home. Teachers are making improvements

in intentionally interweaving Digital Literacy (Element 4) into their curriculum. Students are

making videos, presentations, and other digital content for projects for a variety of courses.

Intentionality comes into play when considering one’s digital footprint. Digital

Commerce (Element 2) demands students be intentional about which businesses and retailers

they are sharing their information with. Just giving one business access to your credit card

information can lead to a security breach. Students must absolutely be intentional concerning

their Digital Communication (Element 3). We must train them to be reflective of the words

they’re putting into writing online - will they be happy to have those thoughts and statements

associated with their name in the future? When considering Digital Etiquette (Element 5),

students must think about how others will perceive them based on the way they treat and interact

with others online. Comments, posts, likes, and responses to other people are all apart of one’s

digital footprint and it’s crucial to consider how all of those small interactions contribute to

someone’s perception of you.


Following the Digital Law (Element 6) requires immense intentionality. Copyright law

can be tricky because we often assume that we are following copyright law and fair use (or that

we’re always protected because we’re in an educational environment). It is absolutely necessary

to know the law and know how to adhere to the requirements. Cyberbullying relates to the law

because oftentimes, students think that what they’re posting is just a joke when it is actually

incredibly serious and carries heavy consequences. For instance, the death threats that Kylie

Kenney received resulted in legal action being taken (Struglinski, 2006). Additionally, with

Digital Rights and Responsibilities (Element 7), it’s crucial to know the specifics of the fair use

policies you’re agreeing to. Laws and Rights and Responsibilities require attention and conscious

choices in order to ensure adherence.

One of the most common areas of life that our students tend to neglect is their physical

wellbeing. In order to ensure one protects their Digital Health and Wellness (Element 8),

intentional boundaries and limits must be put into practice. It’s easy to use technology freely and

then gradually develop a technology addiction, neglect to get enough sleep or develop poor

habits unless you’re consciously guarding against it. Digital Security (Element 9) absolutely

doesn’t happen without intentionality. Every privacy policy that we just scroll past and

mindlessly agree to or every unsecured network we join compromises our digital security. Our

students are putting themselves in incredible danger if they are unwise and simply assume

they’re protected when they’re not.


Empathy is at the heart of Ribble’s Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship (Ribble, 2015).

If students don’t care about others having access to technology, they will never care about Digital

Access (Element 1) because my student population is affluent and rarely without a need filled.

Empathy is involved in Digital Commerce (Element 2) because sometimes our purchasing

choices have unintended consequences. Amazon is dominating the online retail sphere - the ease

and convenience are hard to beat. However, when we choose to spend our money with these

mega-retailers, there are negative consequences for smaller businesses. We must teach our

students to think about how their online purchases impact those around them. Empathy plays a

part in Digital Literacy (Element 4) when thinking about how developing and sharpening one’s

digital skills could be a blessing to a cause or organization. Digital graphics, web design, and

website management are all tools that could be used for a greater purpose or mission.

Copyright law, public domain, Creative Commons, and fair use are just jargon to students

until empathy is woven in. We must help our students see following the Digital Law (Element 6)

and honoring Digital Rights and Responsibilities (Element 7) as a way to respect and care for

others. It’s easy to justify or rationalize violating copyright laws, plagiarizing, or misusing

someone else’s work until you consider how your choice would negatively impact the creator.

We need to teach our students about how following digital and copyright laws are a moral code

of sorts and a way to maintain one’s integrity and character.

Cyberbullying will only be combatted if we first lead with empathy. For whatever reason,

today’s youth consider words posted on the internet to be causal and not serious when compared

to written or spoken face-to-face. Our students will continue to have issues with Digital

Communication (Element 3) until we help them care about the impact their words and posts have

on others. Unless our students have a strong moral compass and consideration of others, they

will only think of Digital Etiquette (Element 5) as norms they need to follow for their own

personal interests. Students will not stand up for those being cyberbullied if they think it’s not

their problem. Developing empathy in our students is an essential component of creating a


culture of respect and kindness. If our students continue to only think of themselves, they will

never have eyes to see the harm that words and images posted online can wield.

Key Elements

The key elements of Digital Citizenship to focus on for the Advisory overhaul are Digital

Communication (Element 3) and Digital Etiquette (Element 5). While my students certainly

lacking professional email and messaging skills, the most urgent and pressing issues our campus

faces concern posting on social media. There have been several incidents involving nude and

inappropriate pictures being sent and circulated around the school. Students have posted

incriminating things on social media, some of which have gotten them into disciplinary and legal

trouble. For example, a student took a picture of a quiz and posted it on Instagram. The teachers

rewrote the quiz and the student was punished. What potentially had even more impact were the

social repercussions the student faced. In response to an unfortunate incident that happened on

campus with a small handful of students, one uninvolved student posted a rant on social media

painting our entire school in an incredibly poor light. While her points might have been

legitimate and her perspective is worth being heard, her approach was ineffective because she

was publicly shaming those involved. Her posts also made her seem like she had malicious intent

(she was trying to get other students in trouble) instead of just voicing her valid opinion. What’s

more common than these bigger incidents is the casual taking of pictures and then sharing or

posting them without the other party’s consent. I’ve seen it happen in my own classroom and

I’ve had to ask students to delete pictures. This violates a basic tenet of Digital Etiquette (getting

consent) and demonstrates a lack of empathy. I’ve seen students do this as a blatant form of

bullying/cyberbullying and I’ve also seen them be less intentional about it, yet equally as

careless. Regardless, the lack of awareness and empathy regarding how and what our students

post demands intervention.

Reflections about Project

When working on this project, I felt like I was able to successfully come up with a

brand/mantra that I was able to interweave and connect to everything that I learned in this

course. Empathy and Intention (or lack thereof) are at the heart of every decision we make

online. I don’t feel like I was able to make my presentation communicate all the information I

wanted while also being concise. With nine elements to touch on, it felt like a lot of material to

cover. I’m not sure my presentation is as captivating or interesting as some of the other projects

I’ve created in this program or even this course. I could have gotten to the core of each element

more succinctly by first looking for images and writing a script for what I would say and then

adding bullet points at the end. Instead, I created the presentation as thoughts and ideas came to

me, then I added the images, and then I wrote the script. By reversing this order, I could have

made the presentation more streamlined. I selected Google Slides because if I were to ever try to

get my Advisory idea rolling, I would need to first present it to the No Place for Hate Committee,

then to my administration, and then possibly to people at the district level that mandate what we

must cover in Advisory. I figured that I might actually need a formal presentation for these

audiences. Google Slides is very easy to use and it definitely helped me keep my thoughts



Ohler, J. (2012). Digital citizenship means character education for the digital age. Education

Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review, 77(8), 14-17.

Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know.

Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Struglinski, S. (2006, August 18). Schoolyard bullying has gone high-tech. Retrieved from