Digital Citizenship: 2 Guiding Principles to Help School Leaders Face Technology Struggles

Technology in Our Schools—Uncharted Waters

technology in our schools

In your school, are personal devices such as smartphones and personal laptops promoting or hindering the educational environment? 

In February 2018, the Education Week Research Center surveyed 500 school leaders. One alarming statistic surfaced from the report—95% of school leaders are concerned that students spend too much time on their phones at home. 

The level of technological connectivity in today’s world is beyond anything we as digital immigrants have ever seen before. Word may have traveled fast back in the 80s and 90s on the playground or in the hallways, but these days, the doors of instant communication have been thrown open and remain open non-stop, day and night.

This is new territory for everyone. The students in your schools are digital natives. They have always known a world chock full of technology and online connections. As school leaders tackle the challenges brought about by personal devices, it’s worth noting that we are in relatively uncharted waters and the currents can be treacherous. As a society, it’s fair to say we don’t have all the answers about technology, and, as adults, it’s imperative to be open with youth and seek to collaborate with them. 

Despite the unknown, more research is beginning to emerge such as the statistic about screen time mentioned above. To help students succeed from elementary through high school, it’s important to learn from the past and each other, ideally including the digital natives in the mapping process as well. In this blog, we will examine real-life examples of those in our society taking a proactive stance to the challenges facing youth regarding technology and identify two core principles to help you chart your course. 

1. Use your influence to make a difference in your school community.

use your influence to make a difference in your schools

As a school leader, your voice matters. Here are two examples of corporate executives using their position of influence to answer technology concerns. What can you learn from their examples? 

Facebook Executive Speaks to College Graduates

Recently, Facebook Executive, Sheryl Sandberg spoke to college graduates. Ms. Sandberg admitted that Facebook leader, “didn’t see all the risks coming” and “didn’t do enough to stop them.” Acknowledging the downsides of technology, she urged students to use technology for good, understanding that there are those who choose to use technology harmfully, willingly or not. She said, “Technology needs a human heartbeat.”

How can you encourage students in your school community to use technology responsibly? 

Apple Shareholders Issue Public Letter

In January 2018, key shareholders urged tech giant Apple to “issue a health warning for their devices and change their systems to allow parents greater control of their children’s usage.

In a public letter, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) together with Jana Partners LLC, called on Apple, Inc. to address the concerns of phone problems, to get involved in research about the negative effects of device use, and to install an advisory board to be current on the situation. The letter, speaking truth to power, drew attention from the media.

In the letter, the shareholders raised the following points:

  1. 67% of 2,300 teachers surveyed noticed a growing amount of students negatively distracted by digital technologies within the classroom. 
  2. 75% note that their students’ focus on tasks has decreased.
  3. Since personal technologies have come into the classroom in the last 3 to 5 years, 90% note an increase in emotional challenges among students.
  4. 86% recognize an increase in social challenges. 
  5. Pertaining to increasing risk factors for suicide: U.S. teens who are on their electronic devices three hours or more each day increase their likelihood by 35%, and for those who spend five hours or more on their devices, the likelihood increases by 75%.
  6. Teens on their devices more than five hours a day get less than seven hours of sleep (rather than the recommended nine).
  7. Long-term issues such as high blood pressure and weight gain are long-term issues linked to sleep deprivation.
  8. Following five days of a device-free outdoor camp, youth tested “far better on tests for empathy than a control group.” 
  9. 58% of parents worry about social media’s influence on their child’s mental and physical health.
  10. 48% describe regulating screen time in their family is a constant struggle.
  11. 58% describe their child as attached to their device.

This public letter exemplifies standing up for what is right and in the common good. Apple quickly responded to the letter, and a few months later, has now entered the discussion about digital health. At schools, we seek to instill character traits such as courage and honesty. Even in our communities, we see the growing theme “See something, say something.” 

Both of these examples show brave members of the community raising their voices and taking a risk for the greater good. How can you raise your voice in your school community, courageously facing the challenges your school community faces?

2. Lead by example and collaborate.

lead by example and collaborate

There are several organizations and movements out there to help you keep students safe and responsible when using technology. Here are a few we have found:

#SavetheKids Movement

In April 2018, Collin Kartchner took a risk and started a movement called #SavetheKids. Kartchner believes in the astronomical power of social media, raising money to aid hurricane victims, cancer patients, and orphans in South America. For the past year, he has traveled to schools and community centers nationwide to raise awareness regarding the dangers of social media. Mr. Kartchner connects with teens, sharing a message about the destructive effects of technology on mental health and self-esteem. Through his counterpart movement #SavetheParents, he challenges parents to reconnect with their children. He has spoken to thousands of youth and adults across the country, calling on them to “rise above the negative effects of social media, while showing the world how to use it for doing good.”

Digital Citizenship Education: DigCitKids

In February 2019, Dr. Mike Dribble along with other contributing authors, published DigCitKids: Lessons Learned Side by Side. The book is a collaborative work involving educators and parents from around the world. It seeks to confront real problems on a local, global, and digital level. The collection of stories in the book demonstrate a quest to instill digital citizenship in the classroom and the home. The book highlights the importance of learning together and talking with children, rather than at them.

Dribble believes a foundation of healthy digital citizenship, as well as good citizenship in general, is built on the “Five Be’s.” 

  • Be We Not Me. Understand that there is strength in numbers. The digital world should be made up of positive interactions. 
  • Be an Example. Good behavior must be modeled. Whether online or off, demonstrate character.
  • Be Curious. Ask questions, search for answers, and be able to learn from and teach each other. 
  • Be a Citizen. See differences but find common ground. Discover your voice in the world.
  • Be Empathetic. Consider how others will likely receive your message. Be careful when sharing ideas, applying the THINK model by asking if your communication is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.

Media Literacy: NAMLE

According to NAMLE, the National Association for Media Literacy Education, media literacy is that having the ability to “access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication is interdisciplinary by nature.” 

Media literacy represents a necessary, inevitable, and realistic response to the complex, ever-changing electronic environment and communication cornucopia that surround us.” In order to be successful, individuals must be able to “develop expertise with the increasingly sophisticated information and entertainment media that address us on a multi-sensory level, affecting the way we think, feel, and behave.” 

The world communicates to us via a combination of sounds, images, and words. NAMLE defends that it’s vital to develop a wider set of literacy skills to understand messages as well as to successfully use the same means to raise our own voice. 

Literacy in the media age demands critical thinking skills, promoting healthy decision-making in and outside the classroom. NAMLE is not an anti-media movement, and it is made up of educators, health care providers, faith-based groups, and consumer and citizen groups who seek a higher understanding of the media environment. 

Michelle Ciulla Lipkin is the executive director at NAMLE. Since 2017, she has “advocated for greater media literacy education through CNN, PBS News Hour, NPR, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera English” (source). Lipkin launched the first-ever Media Literacy Week in the United States and has established partnerships with Participant Media, Twitter, and Nickelodeon. She is a strong advocate for media literacy education. 

My Digital TAT2

My Digital TAT2 is a nonprofit organization in the heartland of technology, Silicon Valley. It was started by a social worker and a child psychologist. Their approach to technology is “positive and empowering, not fear-based.” They seek to educate early with a focus on helping families stay connected via open communication as well as fostering the creation of respectful, thoughtful online engagement. The organization supports student discovery of the value of a positive digital reputation and standing up to cruelty on and offline.

According to My Digital TAT2, the most successful way to establish kind and respectful online communities is to involve all stakeholders: students, educators, and parents. As they collaborate with youth in the classroom setting as well as teen advisory boards or programs, the organization can get a real handle on how youth use technology and its effect on them.

Your Role in Digital Citizenship

As school leaders, we are painfully aware that our school communities are not immune to the harsh realities of today’s world. Smartphones and other personal devices with their various tendrils, including social media, are similar to other things in the world that are wild and free in our society. 

One of the most powerful components of technology is how devices facilitate our ability to accomplish or share certain aspects of our lives. It’s easy and fast. Our voice travels miles in milliseconds on the phone, our words travel just as fast via texts or emails. Heartfelt and thoughtful or hurtful and thoughtless intentions can be communicated, interpreted, and shared with others instantly. 

As you examine ways you can use your influence to raise awareness to the struggles your school community faces, your students and others will notice. As you collaborate with others, including your closest digital natives, your students, they and others will listen. As we come together to chart our courses through this unfamiliar territory, we will be better suited to create and foster environments of learning on a higher level, using technology for good. 


 “Growing Up Digital Alberta.” A collaborative research project by Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital, the Center on Media and Child Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, University of Alberta, and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (2016) 

Twenge, Jean M., PhD., iGen. New York: Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), 2017. 

Yalda T. Uhls, Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou, & Patricia M. Greenfield. “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues.” Computers in Human Behavior Journal (Oct. 2014): 387-392 

American Psychological Association. (2017). APA’s Survey Finds Constantly Checking Electronic Devices Linked to Significant Stress for Most Americans: Stress in America™ poll shows parents struggling to balance personal and family technology use, February 23, 2017. Accessed April 12, 2019. Available online.

Emily Boyle, Website Content Specialist