Teaching Social Action and Digital Citizenship in the Age of Social Media

Young people are growing up more and more digitally native. We are constantly reminded of young people’s affinity with technology when we spot tablets in front of toddlers and mobile phones in the hands of adolescents. Whilst this is the reality that we live in, teachers report that they can struggle to teach young people about digital etiquette and develop the skills they need to prepare for the digital world.

Furthermore, technology changes the ways young people are engaging and interacting online. The onset of instant gratification or criticism in the formative years has led to greater levels of low self-esteem, making it increasingly difficult for children to pick up on social cues and develop deep human connections.

As grim as it may seem, social media and technology aren’t disappearing anytime soon. If anything, we’ll likely see an increase in the amount of technology used in daily life. This poses a unique opportunity for educators interested in teaching digital citizenship and social action to engage with their students on a level that they are more comfortable and familiar with.


Supporting young people to become digital citizens

In order for young people to successfully navigate the online world they need to develop the knowledge, skills, and values to become digital citizens. But what does this really mean? What is a digital citizen?

“A digital citizen is someone who uses technology safely, ethically, and responsibly. They protect their rights and information, as well as those of everyone else in the digital world.”

[adapted from the Council of Europe’s definition]

Part of becoming a digital citizen means understanding the concept of a digital footprint, and how it is created. The Internet Society defines a digital footprint as “the stuff you leave behind as you use the Internet.” It’s the history that you leave behind online, a trail of information. Sometimes this footprint is very obvious, for example, comments you leave on social media, or a video you upload. However, sometimes it is not so obvious, for example, the information that other people, websites, and companies learn and collect about you as you interact with them.

Although young people can and often do set their online accounts to private, it is important that they understand they still leave a footprint on things that they like or comment on. Unfortunately, not everyone on the internet has the best intentions, and young people should be aware of the potential dangers of hackers online.

A quick refresher on internet safety best practices or researching emerging cybersecurity technology can be a good primer for teaching digital citizenship. This is especially important when trying to teach digital citizenship through remote technology.


Teaching the knowledge, values and skills needed for digital citizenship in the classroom

2020 has been a tumultuous year to say the least, but with it came the rise in discourse around fake news. Discussing misinformation can be beneficial in teaching students not to believe everything they read online at face value. This helps students develop their reasoning skills, which are vital to assessing what information should or should not be shared online.

Teachers can create classroom activities that explore this topic and consider aspects like: quality of the news source, use of misleading images, fact-checking, and finding other sources of information that confirm the story. The British Council suggests turning this into a classroom activity which can be tailored to the appropriate level. The BBC also has a page of resources dedicated to helping students spot fake news. In addition, Young Citizens has enlisted the help of communications specialists from the world of business who volunteer their time to teach young people about fake news, bias, and media regulation through our Experts in Schools programme.

Another idea is to challenge students (over 13 years old!) to create a social page (think Facebook, Instagram, etc.), on a topic or cause they care about and would like to spread awareness about as part of a Circle of Life project. This opportunity will help participants develop their voice and stance on the subject, and an action plan will help spread news and information about their social or environmental cause.

Will they use hashtags to connect with their audience? Depending on the size of the cause they choose, they may follow or message other activists and leaders supporting the same cause and gain new insights on how to create meaningful connections. Additionally, this social action project will give students real-world experience of interacting with people online and engaging in thoughtful discussions, which is one aspect of digital citizenship.

The Council of Europe also offers comprehensive advice and classroom activities in its Digital Citizenship Education trainers’ pack. The pack aims to help build teacher awareness as well as educate young people on how to operate in a digital society.



Teachers can help ensure that young people have the skills needed for digital success. By helping students learn good digital citizenship habits, we can encourage them to take their social actions online. Teaching them how to find, connect, and strike meaningful conversations with others online about social causes they care about can bring about powerful, localised social changes.