Three Skills Students Need to Become Digital Citizens

By Andrew McPeak


One of the challenges of our role today as educators is that we often assume that the elderly are the most vulnerable population to online hoaxes, fake news, and scammers. However, this is, quite ironically, a bit of misinformation (or “Fake News”).


In fall 2021, a teacher named Amanda Gardner, who had two decades of experience, began what she thought would be another normal teaching role at a brand-new charter elementary and middle school outside of Seattle, Washington. Instead of having plenty of time to talk to her students about her subject, she reported having to address various conspiracy theories her students were bringing to the classroom. Her middle school-aged students were denying “that the Holocaust happened, arguing that COVID is a hoax, and told their teacher that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.”


Where did they get these ideas? Online, of course.


“Children, it turns out, are ripe targets for fake news.” A September 2021 report in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that ”age 14 is when kids often start believing in unproven conspiratorial ideas.” This is about the age when kids are exposed to high levels of information, but their minds are not yet developed enough to recognize what sources they can and cannot trust. You can see why this is such a big problem. 


As the world continues to move more and more digital, we are going to be putting our young people into more and more compromising situations. Many of them aren’t ready for their new role as full participants in digital spaces. So, how do we get them ready?


The Three Biggest Needs of Today’s Digital Citizens

Just like we learned about eye contact, how to give a great handshake, and how to make polite small talk when we were growing up, today’s students need skills that will help them thrive in their online interactions. So, let’s talk about the three most important skills students need to become effective digital citizens.


Skill #1: Identity (Self-Awareness)

When someone is insecure and lacking self-awareness, they feel vulnerable or inferior in some way. When someone is emotionally secure, it means they are stable emotionally — even in the face of challenging, confusing, or conflicting situations. We can only respond in a stable way if we are grounded.


In much the same way that an electrical circuit is grounded when it has a connection back to the earth, young people cannot thrive in the volatile world of social media without an external force on which they can ground their identities. The longer their identities go ungrounded, the more damage they can cause.


A student’s identity is made up of a few aspects of who they are: Values, Passions, Strengths, Personality, History, and Purpose.


My question for you: Can your students articulate who they are in each of these categories?


Skill #2: Critical Thinking

This one is pretty obvious. Students need to be able to engage critically with the digital world so they do not succumb to fake news, scams, emotional manipulation, or even antisocial ideas.

In her book, Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of the Internet, author Mary Beth Hertz discusses the practical skills students need to think critically while engaging with content on the internet.

Hertz offers five “Key Questions” students (and all of us) can ask as we are engaging with content on the internet to determine the truthfulness and helpfulness of information:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • How might different people understand this message differently?
  • What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
  • Why is this message being sent?

Teach your students to ask these questions critically of what they see on the web, and critical thinking will be a natural result.

My question for you: Have you taught your students to ask these five questions as they engage critically with content on the internet?

Skill #3: Impulse Control
Often, when we think about the skill of impulse control, we align it with stopping ourselves from engaging in self-indulgent behaviors. That is certainly an important way in which to apply this skill, but it’s not the only way. In the case of processing information in online spaces, the skill of “impulse control” can keep students from merely accepting the first answer they come across.

In his 2012 book NetSmart, media literacy expert Howard Rheingold suggests that students practice impulse control by utilizing an old method used by journalists. Journalists, Rheingold explains, “triangulate their information. This means they always confirm information through three different rebuttable sources before reporting it.” This is a great practice for our students to utilize to make sure they don’t just react to the first piece of information they get in a quick Google search.


My question for you: How well do your students control their impulses? What could you do to help them realize where they are reacting rather than reflecting?

This blog is an excerpt from my new eBook, “The AI Dilemma: How Schools Can Build Digital Citizens in the Age of Intelligence.” To get a copy of this eBook, make sure to attend our free upcoming release event. Click here to register!


Three Skills Students Need to Become Digital Citizens