Expert Viewpoint

Rather Than Monitor Students' Web Use, Teach Them Good Digital Citizenship

K-12 leaders are responsible for making sure that students use district-owned computers and Internet access safely and responsibly. Failure to do so could put students at risk and could result in legal liability, bringing significant fallout for district leaders.

For these reasons, many school systems use software that monitors students’ Internet activity and reports on possible misuses of technology. However, the use of monitoring software has come under scrutiny recently. For instance, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) warns that online monitoring tools could have unintended consequences, such as “outing” LGBTQ+ students or otherwise violating students’ privacy.

“Of students who indicate that their school uses monitoring software, many report a chilling effect on their behavior and self-expression online,” CDT reports. Six in 10 students agree with the statement, “I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online is being monitored,” and 80 percent report being more careful about what they search for online when they know they’re being monitored.

“These findings raise questions about whether tracking students may cause them to hesitate before accessing important resources,” CDT observes, such as information about mental health or other sensitive topics.

There’s a better way to keep students safe online than monitoring their Internet activity. By teaching students how to become responsible digital citizens, not only can educators avoid the privacy issues inherent in watching what students do online, but they’ll also be helping students make better online decisions throughout their lives.

This is critical, because educators won’t always be able to look over students’ shoulders as they use the web — literally or figuratively. Students must learn how to use technology and the Internet safely and responsibly at all times, including when they’re using their own personal devices outside of school.

Effective cyber citizenship instruction should begin early on in a child’s education, ideally when students first use technology for learning. Young children should learn the basics of staying safe online, such as not revealing personal information about themselves or others. They should learn respectful and appropriate online behavior, such as how to treat others with kindness and empathy on the Internet. They should learn how to report Internet threats, cyber bullying and other inappropriate behavior they see online.

Digital citizenship instruction should continue with age-appropriate lessons and activities throughout a child’s education. As students get older, for example, they should learn how to use social media safely and responsibly. They should learn the difference between the public and private settings on sites like Facebook and how to use these controls effectively. They should learn about the digital footprint they’re creating when they post to social media websites and what it says about their character. They should understand that the comments and photos they post online can’t be completely erased. They should learn about the dangers of sexting.

Older students should also learn cyber security best practices, such as how to establish secure passwords and keep them safe — as well as and how to recognize and avoid potential Internet scams. They should understand how cyber criminals use social engineering techniques to exploit human emotions in order to carry out their attacks, and they should know how to maintain good cyber hygiene by keeping operating systems and security software up to date.

Monitoring students’ Internet use might seem like a good idea, but it can’t take the place of high-quality digital citizenship education from kindergarten through high school. Teaching safe and responsible online behavior and reinforcing these lessons through age-appropriate activities is the best way to keep students safe both in and out of school, while setting them up for a lifetime of digital success.

About the Author

Dr. Hanine Salem is a Managing Partner at Novus Consulting Group, where she heads both the K-12 Education and the Organizational Performance & Effectiveness practices. Novus’ Youth Cyber Citizenship Course teaches students ages 15-18 about cyber security best practices, such as how to protect themselves and their devices from online attacks and how to recognize and report on cybercriminal activities.