Digital Citizenship: The Critical Call To Educate and Prepare 21st-Century Learners
By: Robyn Shulman, M.Ed.
We live in unprecedented times of great digital advances and innovation. Technology is moving and changing rapidly across the world while connecting us in unforeseen ways. Today’s youth are digital natives who are unaware of life without Internet access, instant communication, mobile phones and an abundance of on-demand information sitting in their pockets.
Although this generation can navigate the digital world with ease, it is unreasonable to assume young people fully understand how to leverage technology for best possible outcomes. Research shows that most youth use the Internet to view media outlets and to communicate with friends through social media applications. Online, teens are not more digitally literate or skilled than adults. Most teens have not been exposed to the tools they need to boost their careers, such as writing, web design or content production. In addition, online security, legitimate dangers and potential digital footprint consequences are discussions yet to be had. As a society, it is our responsibility to ensure youth are fully aware as well as educated about digital citizenship. Education institutions, parents, community programs and youth organizations must make digital citizenship a priority to ensure our young leaders are on solid ground for a positive future. The call for teaching digital citizenship must no longer remain in question; it is a critical priority for youth, our communities and the nation.
Digital Citizenship is defined as the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use; it can be broken down into eight strategic areas: etiquette, communication, literacy, commerce, law, access, security and rights and responsibilities. Digital Citizenship is more than just a curriculum to be taught in a classroom; it is an ongoing process to prepare youth for a society immersed in technology, personally and professionally.
Assisted by the convenience and constant access to information provided by mobile devices, especially smartphones, 92% of teens report going online daily — including 24% who say they go online “almost constantly.” More than half (56%) of teens (ages 13-17) go online several times a day, and 12% report once-a-day use. Just 6% of teens report going online weekly, and 2% go online less often.
African-American teens are the most likely of any group of teens to have a smartphone, with 85% having access to one, compared with 71% of both white and Hispanic teens. Mobile devices have become a primary driver of teen Internet use: Fully 91% of teens go online from mobile devices at least occasionally. Among these “mobile teens,” 94% go online daily or more often. By comparison, teens who don’t access the Internet via mobile devices tend to go online less frequently. Some 68% go online at least daily.
As a result of these growing statistics, parents and education institutions are becoming more aware of digital citizenship while beginning to take an active role. However, because technology changes so quickly, it can be challenging to keep up.
Today, 60% of parents say they’ve checked their teenagers’ profiles on social networking sites. However, a majority of teens (58%) have quickly learned how to obscure and confuse their parents online by changing content, using inside jokes and secret coded messages that only their friends can understand.
In the education system, digital citizenship is disseminated across the board, with no federal or state requirements in reference to a standard curriculum. In some educational institutions, technology is embraced and students have access to iPads and Internet use for research and projects. Some schools include cutting-edge technology programs that raise online awareness about digital opportunities as well as educating students about the real dangers.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are concerned educators who believe that the digitalization of classrooms is severely affecting their pedagogy. At the higher education level, some professors ban laptops from their lecture courses, while many K-12 schools still maintain no technological devices, support or policies. In addition, research has shown that teachers who are 55 and older are not confident about technology and feel overwhelmed by its mere existence. 
This dichotomy among the education population can lead to lack of opportunities for youth in the digital space and for future employment in the STEM field.
By 2018, STEM jobs in the U.S. are expected to grow nearly twice as fast as other fields, resulting in more than eight million positions. Unfortunately, three million of these jobs in STEM may remain vacant due to the lack of required skills and technological exposure. The technology that has changed the world, ironically, also holds the greatest gap for future career opportunities.
Students not only need to be competent in how to use digital technology; they need to learn about different digital dimensions that will enhance their futures for employment. Some examples include coding, animation, web design, blogging, cyber-security and narrowing down information. Youth today must understand the digital world from a holistic picture in order to truly understand how the digital world works behind the scenes, and their roles as part of this platform.
As a result of the rapid changes in technology, all of us a society must be dedicated to playing a leading role to meet the needs of today’s youth. This strategy not only recognizes the call to empower young people with digital tools they need for future success, but also runs parallel to the way students learn in the 21st century.
Together, it is our job to understand that digital citizenship is not only a priority today, but is also an ongoing concern that impacts young people from middle school through college and into the workforce. With these technological needs in mind, a global commitment must be made by providing mentors, resources and tools to those who need it most today while bridging the technological gap toward opportunities in the STEM field for tomorrow.
 Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015, Pew Research Center, 2015, Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/
 Digital Natives, Yet Strangers on the Web, The Atlantic, 2015, Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/04/digital-natives-yet-strangers-to-the-web/390990