As citizens , we are recognized as members or inhabitants of a community. And within every community, there are rules that need to be followed for our own well-being and the well-being of others.  Whether our communities are physical or digital, the same basic rules apply: be kind, respect others and protect yourself.

Understanding and practicing these concepts is much easier in a physical community, where we recognize the faces of community members, make eye-contact when speaking to one another, and often base our personal safety on visual observation of the world around us.  But in a digital world, these basic rules are much more complicated. The digital world includes more potential for danger and it is harder to recognize and easier to disguise than that in our physical world.  Digital communities have no physical boundaries and can include an infinite number of members, most of which we may not know. Profile photos may mislead us into trusting people who are not who they say they are.  As we communicate with others, what we say and do cannot be forgotten or erased, and remains a part of the digital world forever.  As digital citizens, we must understand the dangers and responsibilities that come with our use of the Internet, and practice the use of digital tools with respect, safety and kindness toward others.

As a K-5 educator, I begin my school year by discussing Internet safety with my students. We compare their neighborhoods with “digital” neighborhoods. Just as kids aren’t allowed to just go outside and walk down the street without asking an adult, they should also get permission to go online at home.  Just as they should not talk to strangers in their neighborhood, they should not talk to strangers online either. There may be places in their neighborhood that are safe to visit, but there are also places they should not go. It’s important that when they go online, they know where those safe places are. And most importantly, they should always tell an adult if something makes them feel uncomfortable, no matter what neighborhood they are exploring.

I also spend much time with my students throughout the school year practicing digital rights and citing sources. At the bottom of every research worksheet that my 1st-3rd grade students complete, I include the question “How do I know?” This is where they write  the web address of the district tool they have accessed (Pebblego or Brittanica). 3rd-5th-grade students use the citation tools provided by Encyclopedia Brittanica to cite their sources. (Typically, we do not allow students to conduct Google searches, for fear of encountering inappropriate images and sites.)

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