Today’s headlines are filled with examples of how one’s actions in the online world can create havoc in the physical world – sometimes with tragic consequences. We read about cyberbullying victims committing suicide, teens being radicalized online, and students posting ominous messages on social media before committing or threatening to commit acts of violence.

Cyberspace can also be a venue for anonymous bullying and hate speech that can fuel racial tensions at schools and in communities. And, it’s a place where a single misguided tweet can put an entire school on lockdown or cause someone to get fired from a job.

The power of the digital world is growing as more and more people log on, tune in, and create parallel lives in cyberspace. It is critically important that schools, as well as parents, take an active role in teaching young people how to navigate this increasingly complex world, in order to keep them safe and improve their learning outcomes.

Going online – the good and the bad

The digital world offers immense opportunities for teaching and learning in schools such as a new online curriculum, personalized learning opportunities, and the ability to connect students with far-away people and educational opportunities.

But there is the ugly side too – one that includes cyber bullying and violence. Schools are often ground zero for these types of incidents because it is where students spend a lot of time online. A recent study found that teens spend more than nine hours a day using media and a CNN study of 13 year olds revealed that some check their social media feeds more than 100 times a day, often during the school day.  School is also the first opportunity for students to catch up with each other face-to-face about online conversations that occurred the night before. For these reasons, those who work in the schools are perhaps in the best position to not only teach good digital citizenship, but to detect possible concerning behavior and address it before it gets out of hand.

There are several things that school and district administrators can do to help promote good digital citizenship and keep students safe.

  1. Adopt internet monitoring technology that can detect potential dangerous activity among students. There are software solutions to alert educators if certain keywords or phrases are detected on their devices while on the school network – for example, words related to bullying, sexting, radicalization, eating disorders, suicide and more. The school can then determine next steps. This Online Safety Handbook offers best practices for deploying internet monitoring software as well as resources to help schools deal with issues once they are detected.
  2. Adopt policies and procedures on filtering and monitoring online content
  3. Offer anonymous reporting options for students.
  4. Bring in experts and encourage regular conversations about school violence and other topics such as bullying or suicide.
  5. Partner with organizations that can help you decipher the slang terms that students may use to describe dangerous acts or threats, and who can offer resources if a concerning situation arises.

One of the best ways schools can help students navigate and stay safe in the digital world is to talk to them early about digital citizenship. This includes:

  1. Online etiquette. Most people understand the proper way to behave in public – how to be respectful and professional toward peers and colleagues. Schools even teach students how to be good citizens – vote, don’t litter, stay active and informed about city or town government, speak civilly to one another. The rules and responsibilities of digital citizenship, however, are often not given the same emphasis. Schools can do an immense service to students and the entire community by teaching digital citizenship. For example, teach students about the permanency of their digital footprint and how the things they post online today can come back to haunt them years later. Employers and even colleges can vet future recruits in part by their online profiles. It is also important to understand how to behave. Just because a comments section offers anonymous entries doesn’t mean it’s OK to be rude, disrespectful, hateful or threatening.
  2. Legal consequences. State laws vary tremendously about what constitutes a crime in the digital world, and about responsibilities that schools have in reporting online incidents. Also, laws around social media are still being developed. Most young people don’t realize that what they are doing online or on social media could also have legal consequences. For example, that sexting – sharing a sexually explicit photo of someone through text, apps or social media without that person’s permission – can actually be a crime.
  3. Online safety. Schools can also educate students about some of the more dangerous places on the internet – places where they could fall victim to identity theft or a cyberattack, and web sites or groups that are a gateway to recruit and radicalize young people.
  4. “Digital literacy.” More and more schools are incorporating digital literacy into their lessons such as how to identify “fake news” or whether a web site is legitimate. Dr. Marialice B.F.X. Curran, CEO of the Digital Citizenship Institute, recently addressed this issue in a blog post with EdTech speaker Craig Kemp.  “We live in a fast-paced, constantly changing world with many struggles and frustrations that are often out of our immediate control,” they stated. “The recent viral trend of “Fake News” has taken the internet by storm and our role as educators is to support our students to understand who is behind the information that they are consuming. In order to support our students, we first must ensure that our teachers are fully upskilled on the matter and understand it themselves. Our responsibility is to prepare our students for the world they live in NOW. Blocking and banning is not the solution.”

The blog went on to offer five ways to teach children how to navigate “Fake News.”

The good news is more and more schools are adopting technology and curriculum to help keep students safe online. The recent white paper “Digital citizenship: a holistic primer” describes several examples of teachers embracing digital citizenship lessons. For example, an elementary school teacher offers students the opportunity to tweet from a classroom account about what they are learning. Another asks students to create videos with tips such as how to write a quality comment. Other examples include middle school teachers who introduce online games and let the class use online tools to connect with students in other countries, a high school teacher whose students blog about what interests them and then develop that blog into a TEDxYouth talk, and colleges that created entire courses on digital citizenship.

The digital world can be full of opportunities and pitfalls. By teaching young people about digital citizenship and adopting policies, procedures and technology to help detect possible problems, schools can be proactive on this critically important issue and will play a key role in creating better digital citizens, improving school climate and detecting and possibly preventing the next tragedy.


Sam Pemberton is CEO of Impero Software and an advocate of online safety and digital citizenship programs.  Impero provides online monitoring software to schools and partnered with the Digital Citizenship Institute on the white paper “digital citizenship: a holistic primer.”