How to Teach Digital Citizenship - An Educator’s Guide

Callum Tennent
By Callum TennentUpdated

Keeping students safe is one of your main priorities as a teacher. The internet has added complexity to this matter, taking protection from classrooms and hallways to the digital world. In this guide, we’ll tell you how to best teach your students about internet safety, from teaching elementary school students the basics of online etiquette to educating high schoolers about the importance of their digital footprint.

An illustration of an online persona

As a teacher, one of your first priorities is to protect your students. In the past, this protection has been relatively straightforward, and regulated largely due to the activities that take place in the classroom or in school hallways.

With the invention and proliferation of the internet, however, an extra layer of complexity has been added to this responsibility. The majority of today’s children not only have access to the internet—they’re growing up in a generation that has had this access for their entire lives.

As such, students today tend to be extremely capable when it comes to technology—but they aren’t always smart when it comes to the internet. In fact, their level of comfortability with today’s technologies makes them more likely to engage in social sharing or connecting that puts them in vulnerable positions.

In order to best protect your students from the threats facing them online, you must be well-informed regarding these threats, as well as how to thwart them.

In this guide, we’ll show you how to communicate internet safety practices to your students in a way that is both effective and age-appropriate.

Basic Internet Security for Teachers

Teaching online safety

As a teacher, there are several basic laws you’ll need to understand to recognize the way the federal government regulates the dangers facing your students online.

Teachers should be familiar with:

  • Child’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)
  • Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
  • Cyberbullying laws
  • Sexting laws
  • Revenge porn laws

Child’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)

The Child’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is a federal law that applies to K–12 schools and libraries in the United States that receive federal funding through the E-rate program, which makes communication services and products more affordable.

There are several laws you’ll need to know to understand how the government regulates the dangers facing your students online.

Under CIPA, these institutions are required to create an internet safety policy and use filters and other measures to prevent children from being subjected to harmful online content. Failure to comply with CIPA disqualifies these schools and/or libraries from federal funding.

Schools subject to CIPA must use filters to block access to pictures that are considered obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors. They must also provide education to minors about appropriate online behavior, including increasing their awareness of cyberbullying and teaching them how to interact on social networks.

A summary of CIPA

Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)

The Child’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is the main law that regulates children’s safety on the internet. COPPA imposes certain requirements on the operators of websites or services that are directed to children under the age of 13, or that have direct knowledge of children who are under the age of 13.

Websites subject to COPPA must:

  • Post privacy policies
  • Provide parents with notice of their information policies
  • Collect verifiable parental consent before collecting a child’s information

A brief list of some of the proven effects of cyberbullying

Cyberbullying Laws

Cyberbullying is one of the major threats facing young people online today. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 1 in 3 young adults says that they’ve been cyberbullied. This kind of harassment can lead to serious psychological damages, including depression and anxiety.

Despite the high prevalence and seriousness of cyberbullying, there is currently no federal law against cyberbullying. State-by-state laws vary.

Sexting Laws

“Sexting” is a term used to refer to the act of sending nude or sexually explicit photographs via text message. Although the regulations regarding sexting are evolving, and the majority of states have not implemented “sexting laws” with regard to that specific term, sexting can result in fines, probation or detention.

Sexting is an issue particularly among minors because the possession of nude or sexually explicit photographs of a minor could constitute child pornography. Although many people have come out in recent years against the criminalization of sexting, particularly in regard to child pornography, many of these convictions are still being upheld in courts.

Revenge Porn Laws

One major form of online harassment that many young people are subjected to is revenge porn.

Revenge porn specifically refers to the nonconsensual release of nude photographs online. This type of online harassment is typically seen in high school students and above, although middle schools have seen an uptick in recent years.

There is currently not a federal law covering revenge porn; however, several states have enacted their own specific revenge porn laws. Take a look at revenge porn laws by state.

Creating Your Classroom Internet Policies

Basic classroom rules for internet safety and conduct

Creating basic rules around the use of technology in the classroom is essential to students’ understanding of the correct way to use tech, both at school and at home. When creating classroom internet policies, it’s important to be upfront and clear with your expectations. This means creating reasonable, enforceable rules and communicating them early and often.

The rules of your classroom will vary by which grade you teach, as your students will have a different level of understanding regarding technology—and a different use for it—based on their age. Be sure to create rules that are applicable to the age range of your students, as well as the way you’re using technology in the classroom. However, basic stipulations like engaging respectfully online and not giving out personal information always apply.

A list of points to be covered by classroom internet policy

Create Technology Policies

Creating a classroom policy regarding the proper use of technology by students will help you lay out in clear terms what is allowed in the classroom and what isn’t. Classroom policies will vary by age range, but should include basic rules surrounding how you expect students to engage on the internet, and what is and isn’t allowed when online.

For younger students, technology rules may include:

  • Wash your hands before using the computer
  • Do not go near the computer with food or drink
  • Do not play games
  • Use “safe search” engines
  • Do not install programs without permission
  • Do not download files without permission
  • Only access websites or files approved by teacher
  • Ask for help if you don’t understand something

For older students, technology rules may include:

  • Respect hardware and software
  • Keep your files organized
  • Do not change computer or software settings
  • Report malfunctions
  • Use the computer for school activities only
  • Stay off of social media
  • Do not auto-save passwords
  • Treat others with respect online
  • Do not go on websites for personal reasons
  • Do not use email for personal purposes
  • Log off when finished

In addition to laying out a classroom policy, you should also create technology posters to hang near computers. Although this may seem more applicable to younger students, older students often have difficulties differentiating public spaces and private ones, and will use classroom technology as their own.

Creating a classroom policy and hanging posters helps remind them what they shouldn’t do in a public space.

Create Cyberbullying Policies

Cyberbullying is common among students of all ages and can have damaging short- and long-term effects. In order to help curb cyberbullying, schools should set and enforce cyberbullying policies, and make cyberbullying easy to report.

Creating basic rules around the use of technology in the classroom is essential to students’ understanding of the correct way to use tech.

The majority of schools have anti-bullying policies in place; cyberbullying policies are similar to these. The rules should be clearly defined and communicated to students, and include a code of conduct that students and teachers are expected to follow.

These rules should also be in line with any policies set forth by the school district, as well as any applicable state or federal laws. Policies should be stated at the beginning of each school year and reinforced throughout the year in seminars and reminders.

The purpose of cyberbullying policies is to ensure that each student is treated with respect and allowed to learn in a non-threatening environment. As such, the language of these policies should be positive rather than negative; focus on the aspects you’re aiming to implement rather than the ones you want to stop.

In order for policies to be effective, they must be enforced consistently, not on a case-by-case basis. In order to help students to feel comfortable communicating instances of cyberbullying, you should also create a cyberbullying reporting system.

The cyberbully reporting system should include clear procedures to follow when cyberbullying occurs, as well as clear and reasonable consequences for the perpetrator. Due to the sensitive nature of cyberbullying, it’s important to present a safe space for those who feel they’ve been a victim of online harassment, and reporting should be confidential.

A list of effective anti-bullying policies

Communicate with Parents

In addition to communicating with students regarding what is acceptable internet use, it’s important to keep clear and open communication with parents. In order for young students to best understand the dangers facing them online, their internet education must extend beyond the classroom.

While what constitutes acceptable internet use will vary by family, parents should help reinforce the lessons taught in the classroom by teaching their child about safe internet behaviors.

As a teacher, you can help assist parents with this task by holding Digital Citizenship Parent Nights, which involve hosting parents at the school and teaching them about a range of topics including internet safety and cyberbullying.

Additionally, it’s important to keep open lines of communication with each student’s parent regarding their online activity both in the classroom and at home, to ensure that no warning signs of poor internet behavior are missed. This is particularly important for older students, who are more at risk for psychological damage caused by cyberbullying or other harmful online behaviors.

Monitor Students

While the school administration will have implemented filters for all school devices intended to block inappropriate or harmful content from students, these are not fail-safe. It’s vital that you monitor your students when they’re online, to ensure that they’re not exposed to such content, both involuntary and on purpose.

In addition to monitoring students when they’re actually accessing the internet, you should also check the history of the classroom devices (if allowed by the administration) to ensure that you haven’t missed a pattern of behavior.

It’s also vital that you learn the warning signs that something is wrong. Issues you should be cognizant of range from being a cyberbullying victim or perpetrator to chatting with a stranger online.

Teaching Students About Online Safety: Elementary School

An elementary school

Elementary school is where children are first introduced to technology in the classroom. While technology isn’t the main focus of at this young age, and children in lower grades largely still work with tangible materials like pencil and paper, technology in the classroom is used regularly in grades 3–5.

In fact, using technology in elementary classrooms can have a positive effect—young children, who are often introduced to technology through their parents’ devices, are often drawn to it. As such, it can be a good way to engage with them and encourage different types of problem-solving and learning skills.

However, it’s important to keep address age-appropriate technology topics when dealing with elementary students. When teaching elementary school children about online safety, your main goals should be focused around increasing their basic knowledge of the internet and how to keep themselves safe online.

A list of topics that elementary school internet safety classes should cover

Learning Basic Online Privacy and Safety

While elementary students won’t have started engaging in some online behaviors that can put their privacy and safety at risk—such as posting on social media sites or creating passwords—it’s still important that they learn basic rules regarding online privacy and safety.

By teaching children basic online safety rules at a young age, you set up their understanding of the internet further down the line. To effectively explain online safety to elementary students, you should frame the topic around a subject they already understand.

Common Sense Media suggests using the example of safety rules when traveling in the real world to demonstrate the safety rules you should follow when navigating the online world.

Basic online privacy and safety rules children should learn at a young age include:

  • Ask a parent or teacher for permission before accessing the internet
  • Access only parent- or school-approved websites
  • Protect personal information online
  • Avoid strangers online

How to Avoid Online “Stranger Danger”

From a young age, children are taught about strangers—people that they do not know. When teaching them about internet safety, the goal is to get them to understand that strangers exist online and should be treated the way they are in life.

To do this, teach children to associate online strangers with offline strangers by asking them what information or activities their parents have instructed them to avoid when confronted by a stranger in person. Responses will typically include not giving out personal information, such as their name or address, to the stranger and not going anywhere with them.

When teaching elementary school children about online safety, your main goals should be increasing their basic knowledge of the internet and how to keep themselves safe online.

Reinforcing that line of thinking is the same when dealing with a stranger online. Giving out personal, identifying information should be avoided, as should speaking with a stranger when a teacher or parent is not present.

It’s important to remember that the purpose of teaching online “stranger danger” is not to frighten children—in fact, they may engage with internet strangers through school-approved pen pal activities.

However, students should come away from the lesson understanding that they’re never to engage with a stranger online unless the conversation has been approved by a parent or teacher, and they should never give away personal information or meet the stranger in person.

Understanding Appropriate Sharing of Personal Information

As part of understanding basic online privacy and safety, and understanding how to avoid online “stranger danger,” students should learn what information they should never give away online.

While it’s important to frame this in a positive light, placing emphasis on the friendships that are able to develop online, students must understand the difference between online and offline relationships.

A list of personal information not to share online

Learning About Age-Appropriate Websites

The only websites elementary students should access at school are those that have been approved by you for educational purposes. Ensure that students understand what websites these are and what their approved use is. You should also communicate to students the consequences of accessing websites that haven’t been approved.

Instilling Appropriate Online Behavior at an Early Age

Although the topic of cyberbullying should be covered more extensively in middle school, when students truly begin to engage in online environments that aren’t as heavily monitored, it’s important to give elementary school students a precursor in appropriate online behavior.

This lesson should include basic information on cyberbullying, including what it is and how to handle it. Elementary school students will understand the basics of bullying—actions or words they may experience that make them feel hurt or sad.

Use this as a jumping off point to explain what is appropriate behavior online and what isn’t. Basic takeaways should include how to treat others with respect online.

Teaching Students About Online Safety: Middle School

A digitally connected middle school

As students move into middle school, they will begin to have more access to technology, both at school and at home. Additionally, their access will begin to become less monitored and filtered, as parents allow them to use apps and browsers that don’t use heavy parental controls.

As students become more immersed in the digital world, it’s important to help them think critically regarding their digital footprint. Middle schoolers are still developing mentally and emotionally, and can have difficulty making rational decisions when it comes to online situations.

As such, it’s important that you include teachings about online privacy and safety in your middle school internet safety lesson plan, including how to deal with inappropriate situations and cyberbullying.

A list of topics to be covered in a middle school internet safety class

Chatroom Safety and the Dangers of Online Predators

Middle school students have more unbridled access to the internet than elementary school students and as a result are more at risk to becoming victims of predatory behaviors. This is especially true because middle schoolers often engage in online activities that can put them at risk, such as using anonymous chat rooms and internet messaging services.

A vital part of teaching middle schoolers online safety is helping them learn how to avoid predatory situations, recognize predatory behaviors and remove themselves from a potentially dangerous situation.

To do this, teach your students about the difference between safe online conversations and unsafe ones. They should understand be able to recognize questions that are indicative of predatory behavior, such as inquiries about gender or age, or questions with inappropriate undertones, such as “What are you wearing.”

Once children understand the difference between online behavior that’s acceptable and online behavior that isn’t, they’ll be better equipped to navigate potentially inappropriate situations.

Middle schoolers are just getting immersed in technology, so it’s important that you include teachings about online privacy and safety in your internet safety lesson plan, including how to deal with inappropriate situations and cyberbullying.

Understanding Social Media and Online Identity

As students begin to create social media accounts and form online identities at the end of middle school, it’s important to ensure that they understand the information they share online can be viewed and shared by an audience they may not see.

As such, they need to understand that the way they present themselves online can have real-world consequences. Although this lesson will be expanded upon in high school, when social media and digital footprints becomes more applicable, it’s a good lesson for students just starting out in the social network to learn.

Additionally, lesson plans should include activities and lessons regarding how to vet friends online, what content is appropriate to post on social profiles and how to be respectful when posting online.

Avoiding Online Scams and Malicious Links

Going online means potentially being exposed to online scams or malicious links. While most adults know how to recognize and navigate these scams, middle schoolers—many of whom may be used to using browsers or email systems with built-in parental controls and filters—don’t.

Educate your students on what information these scammers might be after, and teach them to recognize the signs of common scams. Basic rules middle schoolers should know include:

Internet safety tips for middle schoolers

Saying “No” to Cyberbullying

Bullying is a particularly difficult issue for middle school students, who are slowly developing their sense of self. The proliferation of cyberbullying—the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarass or engage in otherwise intimidating behaviors—only exacerbates the problem.

In this lesson, it’s important to talk to students about their responsibility to take action when they witness or hear about cyberbullying, rather than allowing it to happen. Reminding students that they’re responsible for their behavior and for one another helps create a sense of digital citizenship.

It’s also important to remind students about the protocols your school has in place for reporting and dealing with cyberbullying situations. Having definitive solutions in place will help deter these behaviors.

Teaching Students About Online Safety: High School

A high school

Today’s students enter high school already well-versed with technology. However, their comfortability with the medium, coupled with their young age, often leads to oversharing that can have both online and offline consequences.

Because of this, internet safety lesson plans for high schoolers should revolve largely around the effect their digital footprint can have on them and on their future.

A list of topics to be covered in a high school internet safety class

Online Relationships

The prevalence of the internet has added a complex layer to the relationships of high schoolers. In addition to typical pressures that were already prevalent in adolescent relationships, there’s now the added pressure of engaging in online behaviors, such as sexting.

When speaking to your students about sexting, it’s important to create an open and safe space, but emphasize that such behaviors are not safe.

High schoolers’ comfortability with the internet often leads to oversharing that can have both online and offline consequences.

Because of this, internet safety lesson plans for high schoolers should revolve largely around the effect their digital footprint can have on them and on their future.

In addition to educating your students about the potential emotional and psychological consequences that could result from sexting, you should highlight the potential consequences of sexting with regard to the law.

It’s also vital to talk about the dangers of sharing potentially embarrassing or explicit content that’s been sent from someone else. Such behavior can fall into the category of cyberbullying or, in extreme cases, revenge porn. In these cases, potential consequences range fro school-sanctioned penalties such as expulsion to punishments as applicable under certain laws.

Social Media Privacy and Digital Footprints

High schoolers are often unaware of the picture their digital footprint presents of who they are. However, this image can have a big effect on their lives, from getting accepted into college to finding a job after.

Dos and don'ts of online high school profiles

One of the most important internet safety lessons for high school students is the creation of their digital footprint. A digital footprint is the trail of data your students leave as they use the internet—the websites they visit, their social media posts and more.

In fact, according to survey by Kaplan Test Prep, 35% of college admission officers say they check students’ social media. This information serves as a kind of first impression for admissions officers, so it’s important to ensure that the impression is a positive one.

Resources for Teachers

Internet safety resources

Use these resources to learn more about how to best teach your students to stay safe online.

Internet Safety Teaching Resources

Safe Browsers and Search Sites

Cyberbullying Resources


Safe Internet Surfing | CommonSense Media | Edudemic | StaySafeOnline | Virginia Department of Education | FCC |   | Find Law | New York Times | 1,2 | Edutopia | CNN


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