Digital Citizenship: Teaching Your Child to Live Their Values Online

You work to raise your child to be a kind, ethical person, and you want them to behave that way online, too. But let’s face it: the internet isn’t known for bringing out the best in people. You’ve seen the snarky comments, mean-spirited memes, and petty back-and-forths. You know how easy it would be for your kid to fall into that negativity trap. That's why it's important to teach kids not only how to safely navigate the digital world, but also the principles of digital citizenship.

Read on for tips on how to help your child live their values online and become a good digital citizen. 

What is digital citizenship?

“Digital citizenship” means behaving responsibly online, just like you’d expect your kid to act in real life. As a parent, you can help your child understand that their actions have consequences online, and they’re talking to real people behind the screen.

After all, the anonymity of the internet means it's easy to forget that a real person is (usually) behind the comments and posts your child sees on their screens. Responsible digital citizens are respectful, protect their privacy and their boundaries, and think critically about what they encounter online.

How to teach digital citizenship to your child

Clarify values 

Guide your child to set intentions about their behavior. Here are some questions to frame the conversation: 

  • What does being a good person look like? 
  • How do you want other people to treat you? 
  • How do you aim to treat other people? 
  • How do you want to be perceived online? 
  • What specific online behaviors have you seen that you want to match or avoid? 

In addition to helping your child articulate their own values, use this conversation to discuss your family’s shared values and how those apply to their actions online. Over the years, you’ve likely talked about what you expect from their behavior. Those conversations can be a helpful reference point now. 

For example, you might remind them that inclusion is an important value in your family. Just as you expect them to include rather than exclude others in person, the same holds true on social media.

Help your child align their actions to their values by encouraging integrity and authenticity online. Come up with examples of scenarios they could face (such as witnessing cyberbullying) and discuss how they might handle them.

Create a motto 

Every time her kids leave the house, a friend of mine reminds them, “Don’t be a jerk. Be a good friend.” I love this because it distills their family values into a bite-sized nugget of wisdom that's easy to remember and can be referenced regularly. 

Consider creating a motto with your child that encapsulates what it means to your family to be a good digital citizen. It could be as simple as “Think before you post,” or “Be as kind online as you are offline.” 

Lead by example 

If you want your child to behave a certain way online, it starts with what they see from you. Our kids learn by example: before you post or comment, consider how your kids would feel if they saw your comment. (If you have a public social media profile, odds are high that they will see it.) 

If you run into a conflict online, model how you solve the problem with your child. For example, if someone leaves a hurtful comment on one of your posts, share how you handled it — did you impulsively reply with an aggressive comment of your own, or did you step away and report or delete the comment?

Be their bumpers

You probably know by now it’s important to keep an eye on your child online in order to protect their safety. It’s wise to adopt a similarly hands-on approach to ensure they’re being a good digital citizen. 

Don’t worry, there’s no need to become a helicopter parent or spend all your free time on TikTok. Following your kid on social media, regularly sitting down with them to review their accounts, or using a service like BrightCanary are all great ways to keep tabs.  

If you see something concerning, rather than jumping to punishment mode, have an honest conversation with your child about the situation. Remember, they’re still learning how to be good humans on the internet. Address the issue directly — but gently guide them back on course. 

Have an open-door policy

Your kid will mess up. They’re only human. Let them know they can always come to you with their problems and mistakes, and you’ll do your best to listen without judgment and support them through it. 

By keeping your proverbial door open, your children are more likely to feel safe opening up to you when they do something online that’s outside of their values and your expectations. Using a values-focused lens, help them brainstorm ways to repair the situation and make amends. 

In closing

The term IRL (in real life) implies that our online behavior somehow exists in a separate category from the rest of our life. In reality, what we do on the internet reflects on us both online and off. 

It’s vital that we teach our children to live their values online. Take the time to help your child learn how to articulate their values, discuss how they can live those values on the internet, and be a resource as they learn to be a good digital citizen. 

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