Early Digital Citizenship: Creating Engaged and Informed Lifetime Citizens

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Digital citizenship has been on the tips of everyone’s Twitter thumbs this week for Digital Citizenship Week 2018. Digital Citizenship has also been at the top of headlines for a number of reasons including cyberbullying,  U.S. 2016 Presidential Election, the Parkland, Florida school shooting and March for Our Lives, the rise of the term “fake news”, as well as concerns about the rights of children, including privacy and safety. It seems that everyone is on the same page: digital citizenship skills are critical in childhood. Digital citizenship should be taught to children to support the development of fully engaged and informed citizens.  

Head Start Program
July 12, 2016
Eyes on the Future Child Development Center, Chicago

The Technology in Early Childhood Center advocates for and supports the high-quality and developmentally appropriate use of technology and digital media use with young children. Digital citizenship should be fostered and facilitated with young children in order to ensure high quality and developmentally appropriate use of technology and digital media.

While learning about digital citizenship, often educators realize they are already facilitating many of the skills in their early childhood setting such as warning students to be careful about what they post online or encouraging students to be nice to others. These questions and explanations serve as a guide for a beginning understanding of digital citizenship.


What is digital citizenship?

Digital Citizenship expert, Mike Ribble, defines digital citizenship as,

“The norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.“ – Mike Ribble

Watch Common Sense Media video “What is Digital Citizenship?” to learn more.



NOTE: Media Literacy and Digital Citizenship are often confused and are related. Read Media Literacy in Early Childhood: A Critical Conversation report from TEC Center and NAMLE to learn more about media literacy.


What does the “citizenship” part of “digital citizenship” refer to?

Digital citizenship and citizenship are not that different! Simply put, citizenship is digital citizenship without digital tools. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines citizenship as

“relationship between an individual and a state to which the individual owes allegiance and in turn is entitled to its protection.”

Refer to the International Society for Technology in Education infographic, Citizenship in the Digital Age to compare elements of being a good citizen with elements of being a good digital citizen.


How are young children citizens?

From birth, children are citizens of the world. They are influential members of their communities. As an infant, they cry for food, thus influencing their caregiver’s actions. As a toddler, they take a ball from another toddler and influences that toddler’s emotions. As they gain more experience with the community around them, they develop assumptions about their power and ability to influence others actions and thoughts. On the other side of the same coin, they begin to understand how others perceive them. An African-American preschool student soon learns that questioning their teacher often ends in a punishment.

TEC Center STEM in Early Childhood Lab
Day 1: August 2, 2017
Erikson Institute

These early experiences shape a child’s understanding of their citizenship and their sense of community. In these early years, adults and digital media also shape a child’s understanding of their citizenship and sense of community. About 40% of children ages birth to 8 have their own tablet and 98% have a smartphone in their home (Rideout, 2017). There’s no doubt that these experiences with digital media shape a child’s perception of citizenship (Ohme, 2018).

Often, early childhood is left out of the digital citizenship conversation. As a result, educators and families are left wondering how to support young children. There are many early skills that support the development of digital citizenship skills and the ability to become digital citizens. These skills are not restricted to a digital platform.


Here are 5 ways adults support children’s citizenship in the early years:
  • Form the habit of asking before posting.
  • Be critical about digital media content and be transparent about it.
  • Create an e-book that is intentional and accurately represents cultures and communities.
    • In the first couple years of life, children develop assumptions about gender norms and race and form preferences for people who look like their caregivers, family, and friends. This means children are creating expectations based on gender and race. This is why it’s critical to break stereotypes and accurately represent cultures and communities. One way to do this is to create your own e-book with your child/student(s) and have an open conversation about characters, plots, and settings. Read these Play and Lesson Plans developed by our TEC Mentors, for ideas on how to get started.
  • Include children in the decision-making process when making your Family Media Plan.
    • Families and educators should include children in the decision making when creating limits and guidelines for technology and media use at school and at home. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a great resource, the Family Media Plan, that the whole family can discuss and create together.
  • Model being an intentional citizen online and offline.


How are organizations advocating for digital citizenship education in K-12?


February 14, 2017

The “citizenship” elements of digital citizenship rely on Civic Identity Development in early childhood. As we lead with child development knowledge and expertise, we must explore how civic identity and the value of civic duty develops in childhood. Civic Identity Development in early childhood informs and serves as the foundation to later digital citizenship. When early childhood professionals better understand how technology and digital media play a role in citizenship, they can be advocates by raising, educating, and empowering young children to appropriately utilize technology and digital media for civic engagement.



Ohme, J. (2018). Updating citizenship? The effects of digital media use on citizenship understanding and political participation. Information, Communication & Society, 1-26. doi:10.1080/1369118x.2018.1469657

Rideout, V. (2017). The Common Sense census: Media use by kids age zero to eight.
San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.

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