Values: The Foundations for Negotiating Digital Citizenship

02/10/2014 04:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014


The goal of digital citizenship is to encourage 'virtuous' online behavior. It is an ideal for students to aspire to, with reference to their rights and responsibilities within local, global and digital communities (Ohler, 2010). These behaviors arise within a range of environments and activities that occur online, including learning environments, civic participation, social support, content production, and information environments (Rutledge, 2013). The ideal to which this endeavor aspires is to use digital tools in a prosocial manner while preventing, where possible, some of the negative impacts that media technologies can make possible (Rutledge, 2013).

The range of participants, environments, the digital technologies used and the aims and purposes of their use, raises important questions about how to define and educate for digital citizenship. Jason Ohler asks "what behaviors and codes of conduct are befitting citizens who occupy these new [digital] communities?" (Ohler, 2010, p.35) and explains that these questions cannot be resolved, only debated. However, in order for a school or other education body to establish curricula to educate young people about digital citizenship, a working model of this concept does need to be defined.

This issue then raises further questions: Who decides what constitutes digital citizenship? Whose values and perspectives are included in this definition? How do you create guidelines that inform new digital citizens about 'virtuous' behavior? How do you instil these values as part of an approach to education and media literacy? And, how do you encourage older digital citizens to adopt these guidelines after they have already established certain behavior patterns and expectations about online behavior?

Sanford Drob argues that values are a universal part of being human and that axiology (the study or philosophy of value) is intricately linked with psychology because of the central concern with human motivation, development and welfare (Drob, 2014). Within the past decade values have increasingly become a significant area of psychological inquiry, especially within the theories of Positive Psychology (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) and third wave therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes, Strosahl & Wilson, 1999).

I would argue that education is similarly linked to axiology, along with the concept of digital citizenship, through the emphasis on teaching 'virtuous' behavior and the 'right' way to engage and interact within online communities (Ohler, 2010). Debated issues such as online privacy, relationships, self-expression, self-regulation, social collaboration (a product of what Clay Shirky (2010) calls "cognitive surplus") and others are inextricably linked to underlying values such as creativity, kindness, wisdom, gratitude, authenticity, relatedness, freedom, generativity, and so on.

However, while the existence of values is a common human experience, specific values are not universally shared; there are slight differences between cultures, communities, generations, and individuals about what is important or valued (Drob, 2014). This may explain why debate continues about what is the 'right' way to behave online, because there is no easy agreement about the values that underlie individual's motivations, behaviors and communications. These differences in values means that it is very important to assess guidelines for digital citizenship to ensure that these are inclusive and respectful of all participant's value systems and balance the needs of both individuals and communities (Ohler, 2010).

Digital citizenship is a dynamic process of reflection and revision, and requires active participation from all parties to adapt the guidelines to constant changes within the digital environment. One method of engaging in this process is to be mindful of the values that underlie the beliefs and expectations about online behavior, and critically analyze these to ensure that the values of respect, inclusion and equality are primary considerations. This means that young people and older individuals must have equal input into collaborating on what 'virtuous' online behavior looks like within the digital environment.


Drob, S. (2014, January). Values and Psychology: A Phenomenological Analysis. Seminar presentation at the meeting of Fielding Graduate University Winter Session, Santa Barbara, CA.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Ohler, J. (2010). Digital Community, Digital Citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Rutledge, P. B. (2013). Arguing for Media Psychology as a Distinct Field. In K. E. Dill (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology (pp. 43-61). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Shirky, C. (2010, June). How cognitive surplus will change the world. [Video file]. Available from