What is it to be a good digital citizen? How do schools effectively manage their online reputation and assist students to be safe? How does a school balance freedom of speech with the rights of others to not be bullied or have their reputations unfairly impugned? What is the law and how does it relate to the ‘community standards’ of sites like Facebook?

Students at our school are encouraged to be good digital citizens. This does not mean merely ‘being good online and not cyber bullying’ but by learning a wide-range of skills that assist them to navigate their online lives today and into the distant future. There is much to learn about online commerce and financial issues, health and well-being, security and netiquette, as well a whole host of literacies, including coding. Students need to understand their rights and responsibilities in all manner of online communications. Not least, students need to be culturally and critically literate in order to assess the veracity and value of the information they consume online. We have made a start improving the quality of learning about the digital realm but like most schools, acknowledge this is an area where we need greater sophistication and the development of more coherent programs across the curriculum.

We have a very simple approach to ‘poor digital citizenship’ that students, teachers and parents are encouraged to follow. If something problematic is happening online, take a screenshot and email it to the deputy principals with an explanation of the issue. The deputies work with the students and parents to resolve the issue. Sometimes, the School Police Liaison Officer is involved if the issue is more challenging. This does not have to be cyber bullying but any issue that concerns a student, teacher or parent, especially in regards to digital reputation.

The school uses Google Alerts to assist manage our collective online reputation. These alerts more often than not point towards positive online articles and posts about the community, students and staff such as sporting success, community participation and newspaper articles about student achievement. It also reveals tweets, blog posts and Facebook page activity where the school or staff are mentioned. Ex-students and parents now to contact the school if they are concerned with any online activity which seems unfair or wrong.

What can a school do if students or teachers are treated poorly online?

Recently an unpleasant Facebook meme page about our school led me to reflect more deeply about the nature of digital citizenship, cyber bullying, satire, the law and free speech. The school was alerted by parents, students, staff and ex-students about the page. An impressive number of current students had posted comments about the unfairness of some pictures and posts. Others had participated quite cruelly. Quite a few had reported the page, as I did.

The screenshot above comes from Facebook Community Standards. After I reported the page and requested email follow-up (which I recommend) Facebook responded by saying the meme page had not violated the ‘standards’. I disagreed and emailed several screenshots with explanations of how these standards had been contravened. In took three days for the page to be removed. You may wish to read more about Facebook’s Security & Warning Systems (and about other warnings) to understand the systems the company has developed. The reality is your best chance of addressing Facebook issues comes from their internal systems or ‘standards’ than in a legalistic sense, although, of course, that may be possible (if you have the time and money).

The balance between the right to speak freely online and the responsibility to use this privilege wisely will be, I’m sure, an ongoing struggle and occasionally paradoxical. I felt a responsibility to protect students and staff. Some of the posts and pictures were crassly satirical others were arguably racist and demeaned people with disabilities. I was very glad the page was removed but it did cause me to reflect about the role of the school in such situations. It would be possible to argue that many satirical programs on the ABC would be more offensive to some members of the community than the page in question. I do not want those programs to be censored or removed as they are often, as all good satire is, deeply illuminating about the nature of our society. Having said that, the particular meme page being discussed was not an insightful work of satire but I am certain you see what I am driving at.

What are the laws anyway?

My research into the legal situation is certainly not complete and anything written here should be viewed as my preliminary attempts to grapple with an increasingly complex issue rather than anything that remotely resembles academic or legal advice. What if someone says something offensive about you or your child or a teacher online – what can be done? I am still not certain. Facebook, as a US company, is protected by the Speech Act (signed by President Obama in 2011) and the earlier Communications Decency Act (signed by President Clinton). These protect internet providers from liability for the acts of third parties on their sites under the first amendment pertaining to free speech. Depending on what was said, it may meet the standard of a criminal offence under the Australian Criminal Code Act  – section 474.17 – using a carriage service (which includes the internet) in a manner which  reasonable persons would regard as being offensive. The circumstances which can be taken into account in determining whether the use has been offensive  includes:
  • The standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults
  • literary, artistic or educational merit (if any)
  • general character of the material (including medical, legal or scientific character). The penalty is 3 years imprisonment.
  • It is also possible that offensive comments of a racial nature breach the Racial Discrimination Act if they “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” on the grounds of race.


For schools, the most sensible course of action is to encourage dialogue about our society and the microcosm of this that students experience daily in their classes and online. Digital citizenship needs to be part of daily school routines and learning. Students need to be taught these skills explicitly, especially with the use of authentic, real life scenarios. Schools needs systems that allow students, parents and teachers to seek support but also need to be wise in how issues are resolved. There are many challenges.

What is it to be a good digital citizen was the opening question to this post? Like traditional citizenship, it depends on who you ask.  The answer is most likely to emerge from an ongoing community dialogue as a shared understanding of our rights and responsibilities online continues to emerge.

How do you see the challenges for students and parents, teachers and schools? What are your thoughts and/or experiences of these issues?


FEATURED IMAGE: cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by laikolosse: http://flickr.com/photos/laikolosse/2712207735/



  1. The challenges for living in a digital world are burdensome and growing, especially for students as their entire lives are often deeply-rooted online. While these challenges may only become scary when rumors get out of hand or a student is applying to schools or jobs, this should be a regular concern. NetClarify offers tools to evaluate online reputation at http://www.NetClarify.com and inforgraphics on this topic if you want to include them in any communications that will help ease fears about what to do in the wide expanse of the Internet: http://www.NetClarify.com/infographics-and-statistics.

    • Peter Banks

    • 11 years ago

    It is easy to see why many regard technology as much as a thorn in the side of education as an innovation to be embraced. The question of challenges is rightly broken into the groups “students and parents, teachers and schools’. However, although I think the challenges are clearly significant I’d like to flip to the other side of the coin. Firstly by recognising that when innappropriate posting occurs there is always an indisuptible record (provided a system such as the one you outline is followed).

    When considering “poor digital citizenship” I also question the possible inference that the poor citizenship results in some way from the digital world. In other words should we be deeply disturbed about the digital world or the real people whose attitudes/lack of respect/consideration is displayed? Or put another way do people make nasty posts because they don’t understand netiquette or for some other less easily defined but more troubling reasons?

      • Darcy Moore

      • 11 years ago

      Hello Peter,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I am very enthusiastic about digital technologies and have been for many years. This post was a reflection about the practical side of ensuring students understand the ramifications at school or work of what they may do online and the challenges for those who lead/manage educational institutions. Schools need to both educate and manage these often complex issues. Increasingly, it is obvious, that the divide between offline/online is a false binary. We are citizens but ‘digital citizenship’ is a good umbrella term for a host of issues students need to understand. To answer your question, in my experience, the students who have troubles online tend to have the same kids who have trouble in the playground or classroom. Not always – but often. There are many challenges and emotional intelligence is as important a skills as netiquette (and they are linked). One big issue is that ‘a record’ of poor digital citizenship is very public for teenagers trying to learn about life. We need to educate and all continue to learn. Teachers and parents too, most who have grown up when errors of judgment were far less public or permanently recorded.

      @Darcy1968 🙂

    • Peter Banks

    • 11 years ago

    Hi Darcy,

    was already evident that you are very well across the issues but the comments you have picked up on in my post just make this clearer. I didn’t intend to suggest a simple good kid/bad kid dichotomy. I’m also mindful that kids on line comments just happen to be made permanent by the nature of the medium and can easily then later appear as much nastier than a schoolyard comment. ACA will no doubt tell us that “Naming and shaming the culprits” will have the whole issue sorted and yet from my experience this kind of approach does more to satisy the need to be seen to take action and is arguably no better than the online behaviour being condemned.

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