A parent's guide to raising a good digital citizen

The world is filled with technological pitfalls and online dangers.

"Do you know what you're looking at?" I ask my five-year-old and seven-year-old when we're on the iPad.

"Yeah, yeah," they grumble as they swipe and tap during their 10-minute dip into deviceland. While we peruse pictures of dinosaurs or exploding volcanoes on YouTube or whatever it is that piques their interest, I ask a bunch of questions. Not surprisingly, they never know the answer to my favorite internet-safety question, "How do you know this one's not a joke?"

To be clear: I supervise my kids while they use the internet. I only let them on for 10 minutes or less, all the while pinging them with questions. I don't hand off the iPad and let them have at it.

Yes, I'm one of those. Call me a fuddy-duddy. Call me a digital philistine. Call me annoying. Call me whatever you want. I won't sit with them forever -- only until I'm convinced they have the skills to distinguish fact from fiction online, that they understand what they're looking at, and what or who is looking at them.

Why? Because being a good digital citizen is critical in this hyperconnected world. The alternative isn't pretty. Think some figurative version of The Matrix's "real world." I don't want my kids to be unthinking 9-volts that feed the machine. I suspect as much for you and yours.

By now you've probably heard the term "digital citizenship" batted around, especially when it comes to kids and technology. But what is it exactly? And why should you care?

Well, there's The Matrix scenario... But perhaps more realistically, you should care because your kids are growing up digitally and will likely interact with the digital world in some capacity on most days of their lives. It's probably a good idea for them to know how to function as positive, thoughtful, productive, creative, kind humans in said world, no?

Think back to that "good citizenship" award you may have received in elementary school. You know, the one you got for showing that you valued education, participated in your community, listened, asked questions, stood up for others and learned how to politely disagree. Being a good citizen is all about contributing to the good of society, maybe even making it a bit better for future generations.

Lay on the digital and boom: You have digital citizenship.

Being a good digital citizen means being a responsible one: educating yourself and your kids about the digital world, participating in it in positive ways, questioning it and using technology as a tool to make the world a bit brighter (and not in some post-apocalyptic-neon-shroom-cloud way).

How do kids learn digital citizenship? The same way they learn how to be good citizens: They watch good role models, and they practice. As a mom, I try to be one of those role models and give them opportunities to practice, with, admittedly, a pretty tight leash. I do the best I can. I make mistakes. Sometimes, I'm annoying. Sometimes, I need help finding the right resources.

Not sure where to start with digital citizenship? The important thing is to start somewhere. Here are three tools that work for me.

Common Sense Media

Common Sense Media

My go-to for all things digital literacy and kids is likely your best starting point. While most of its info is geared toward teachers, its eight main topics help me guide my kids in using the internet as responsibly as they can.

Do I hit on all of these with my kids? No. They're five and seven. I try, in my ceaseless, annoying way, to talk about internet safety, relationships and communication, digital footprint, and reputation. The rest? I use Common Sense Media's Digital Citizenship Resources for the Home. Its five key talking points are spot-on.

  • Be kind

  • Keep things private

  • Don't believe everything you see

  • Don't overshare

  • Stand up for others

I like these because they're helpful guidelines for general decency on or offline, and Common Sense Media does a nice job breaking down how to talk to preschool through high school age kids. There's also a cool printable download. When we're sitting around looking at stuff online, I come back to these talking points repeatedly.

Of all the concepts on this list, oversharing is perhaps the hardest to teach kids, mostly because they're constantly taught that being kind means sharing and that sharing is, ostensibly, a good thing. My children, overachievers both, think that if sharing is good, then too much sharing is better. Not quite.

Digital Citizenship

I explain it this way: "It's OK to share a favorite book with a friend, right? But it's not OK to share all of your favorite books all at once, is it? Too many books all at once! Your friend won't know what to look at first!"

"But I don't share books on the internet!" they say.

"No, of course not. The point is this: Don't share too much all at once. Ever. Online or in person. If you're ever confused about how much is too much, ask me."

And you know what? They do. They also like talking about the differences between online and in person, which are good conversations to start now, during all this supervised internet time.

Common Sense Media also offers some helpful Family Engagement Resources that feature great videos and articles on ways to encourage positive digital citizenship at home -- everything from using a cell phone responsibly to combating cyberbullying.

Check out its razor-sharp ratings for apps, games, movies and television too!

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)

ISTE creates the technology teaching standards that your kid may be learning at school. Again, this is geared toward teachers but offers great ideas for parents too. I like its four key do's of digital citizenship, all of which go deeper than basic internet safety and focus on using technology as the tool it is.

  • Using technology to make your community better.

  • Engaging respectfully online with people who have different beliefs than you.

  • Using technology to make your voice heard by public leaders and to shape public policy.

  • Determining the validity of online sources of information.

While at this point we can only aspire to lofty discussions of No. 1-3, we're almost there with No. 4. But like everything else with little kids, it's a constant work in progress.

Lately, my kids are into space, asking lots of questions about how rockets work, how to go to Mars and how to do everyday things in space like eat and go to the bathroom. Sometimes, during their 10-minute technology time, they want to see a video of a rocket launch or an astronaut. We usually wind up on a YouTube NASA video, but they see YouTube's recommendations on the side of the screen.

"Can we watch this one?" they ask, pointing to something that looks like a scene from a home movie space porno.

"No," I say.

"Why not?" they ask. "It looks good. There's a lady in a space suit."

"Look at the letters underneath it," I say. "Do you see N-A-S-A?"

"Oh. No," they say.

Perfect? No. But it's a start, and my kids are beginning to understand that just because something looks cool doesn't mean it's trustworthy.

ISTE also offers a free digital-citizenship poster (PDF), which, while you might not want to hang it above the fireplace, highlights a few key digital-citizenship concepts in its bright and sunny way. Might be nice by your desktop, if you have one...

There's also a must-watch video (above) of a mom and her son talking about digital citizenship and Minecraft.

Harvard Graduate School of Education's (HGSE) Digital Citizenship Resource List

HGSE split its curated list between resources for educators and parents, and all of them are user-friendly. I like these two best.

1. Net Cetera (PDF), aimed at parents of tweens, offers tips and support for parents on screen time, online socializing, cyberbullying, filtering and blocking, cell phones, apps, security, and privacy.

2. Edutopia's Digital Citizen Resource Roundup impresses with its array of tools for teachers, which you can adapt to home. I like its article on Introducing Social Media to Elementary Students and its 5-Minute Film Festival videos on Digital Citizenship, Developing a Culture of Trust and Transparency and Are We Addicted to Technology?

These are aimed mostly at middle and high school age kids, and I've recommended them to friends with kids in the tween set. We're not there yet. We're still on NASA videos.

Bottom line: Digital citizenship is a direct extension of good citizenship. Embrace the world in which we live. Embrace technology and the digital world. Embrace your kids harder. They're real. They're not bits of data, ones and zeros whizzing around the universe. They're little people who will grow up to be big people who will make big decisions. Teach them well and know it's OK to make mistakes. Hopefully, your digital-citizenship quiver has a few more arrows now. Do what I tell my kids to do: the best you can with what you have. And always try to do better.

Images: JohnnyGreig via Getty Images (Man and two children)