What is digital citizenship?

To help understand a term like this, I like to break it down into its component parts. First, what does “citizenship” mean? I’ve taught political science courses and a civic engagement course, so “citizenship” is a pretty familiar concept to me. (Of course, even though the term is “familiar,” that doesn’t mean I have it all figured out!) To me, citizenship can be understood in at least the following ways:

  • A “citizen” is someone who meets the requirements for legal membership in a state (born or naturalized in the U.S., for example)
  • A “citizen” is a bearer of rights in a society
  • A “citizen” is someone who embraces the legal and political principles of a country
  • A “citizen” is someone who commits to carry out the duties of citizenship
  • A “citizen” is someone who is part of the national or ethnic “spirit” of the country

How you define “citizenship” will change based on culture. In the U.S., we’re a lot more likely to define citizenship in the “public works” sense. If you ask someone in the U.S. what makes a “good citizen,” they’ll probably say a good citizen does certain things, like votes, is educated about politics/society, helps solve community problems, respects laws and leaders, etc. U.S. culture also really emphasizes individual rights and freedoms as a key component of citizenship. In other words, in the U.S., citizenship is primarily about rights and duties. In other countries, being a “good citizen” may have more of a social meaning. “Citizenship” may mean putting the good of society/group above yourself. Or, “citizenship” may be based on ethnic or national identity; so, again, it may be more about a social identity than a legal-political identity.

To me, adding “digital” in front of “citizenship” changes its meaning significantly. Since “citizenship” infers a certain identity and group membership, I think “digital citizenship” infers group membership as well. Practicing digital citizenship means we engage with other people and form groups. Individuals can use technology to form groups with like-minded people they’ve never met. Individuals can also use technology to interact with people who are not at all like-minded. Traditional “citizenship” does the same thing; it connects us with like-minded people, but also gives us opportunities to interact with people with whom we disagree.

Logically, it follows that if citizenship is about certain rights and duties, then digital citizenship is also about digital rights and duties. We have certain rights and certain duties when it comes to our online presence and engagement. We have the right to participate online; we have the right to free speech and free expression. We have the right to safety and privacy. We also have duties–the duty to engage responsibly, the duty to treat others with respect online, and the duty to use digital participation to seek positive change (and not for harm).