Commentary: Digital Citizenship — prioritize people, not technologies.

Ivette Bayo Urban

Author’s note: While this is intended to add to the conversation on safe technology use, media literacy and digital citizenship policy in public schools for Washington state – the considerations below are valuable to creating a healthy community and information ecosystem.

Washington state has the opportunity to be the national leader regarding safe technology use, media literacy and digital citizenship in public schools. Governor Inslee recently tasked the Washington State School Directors’ Association to create a model policy based on a survey of teacher-librarians, principals, school technology directors and other community members.

While there are currently many digital citizenship efforts in districts and schools across the country, Washington state is one of the first taking a statewide policy approach to the curriculum. While this is great news, it has the potential to flatten groups into one dimension or identity – lacking nuances could exacerbate existing problems. One size does not fit all – therefore, it’s especially important that we take measures to prioritize people, not technologies.

As a critical information scholar at the University of Washington’s Information School, I talk to many people (across differences) about their technological needs and I have found they are all different – and research supports this. Research shows that when we frame technology through “normal” approaches, we further marginalize people whose identities are already vulnerable or undervalued in our society.


1) Critical thinking about technology

We currently do not teach students (and I would argue people in general) to think critically about technologies, such as exploring how search engine algorithms work, engaging in conversations about terms of service, explore how social media data can be used, or what happens to the metadata contained as part of the images shared on the Internet – what inferences, assumptions or judgments can be made from your data. Our interactions with technology may lead us to think and act certain ways. Understanding and thinking critically about those relationships is fundamental to understanding the social and political parts of American democracy in this digital age.

2) Establish protocols

I suggest we approach technological practices as individual and group relationships where respect and consent are foregrounded and made explicit. Since the goal is to create a digital literacy program in public schools that is fair to all families, if we approach our multiple interpersonal, communities and organizations with an informed consent or social contract model — we are more prepared to be culturally responsive to our cultural and technological differences.

3) Mindful of technological preferences

We should approach digital citizenship mindful of the sensitivities and preferences of families, as well as marginalized communities. The technological realities people have cannot be assumed and can vary depending on a multitude of circumstances and preferences. Consider a survivor of domestic violence — their considerations around privacy and surveillance can be vastly different from others. This includes acknowledging that communities will have differences based on access (from broadband, technologies and support networks), worldviews and values. For instance, a fair statewide digital citizenship policy should speak to realities faced by indigenous students in our public schools, as well as rural communities.

4) Respect people where they are

All of us are somewhere in relation to the technologies we access, use and find beneficial or necessary in our lives. My research is tracking ways we dismiss or invalidate peoples’ technological experiences — and there are many. We must be mindful of the language we use to talk about technology and avoid “technological microaggressions.” Even well-informed and intended educators, librarians, administrators and technologists can perpetuate a feeling that you “don’t quite fit in.” In my research, I have found a kind of microaggression that spans all identities and possesses a common element — technology. I have termed a “technological microaggression” to refer to slights that are technological in nature, which erase or minimize peoples’ experiences or relationships with technology (such as “everyone is on social media,” or “it’s so easy, I don’t understand why you don’t see it,” or that function with an understanding of time which presumes you are always connected to the Internet or other technology, “I emailed you last night regarding the event this morning.”). Digital etiquette education has not yet addressed appropriate conduct offline regarding people who choose (or are unable) to engage in certain technological spaces.

5) Adequate representation — include spectrums of diversity

We need to ensure that diversity — in race, age, culture, gender, abilities (physical and cognitive) and technological — informs our digital citizenship policy. Let’s ensure we don’t take a colorblind approach to technology. When reviewing the survey data, ask: Is the people of color percentage response representative of our state population of students of color? If the answer is no, get more data or invite different voices to have a seat at the table.

According to data from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, in the 2015-2016 school year, Washington state students in P-12 were 44 percent students of color — compared to only 10.1 percent teachers of color.


We need to prioritize the people, not technologies. Technology can provide many wonderful connections, learning and professional opportunities, but technology is not the only solution and sometimes can disproportionately put people at risk.
Our identities — such as our race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, where we live, whether we are experiencing homelessness or may be undocumented, survivors of domestic violence, educational attainment, and what our work is — all impact how we can or choose to navigate the physical and digital worlds, and they all deserve to be respected in our society.

Washington state has the potential to create a policy that can positively impact current and future generations in how to inclusively and respectfully approach digital citizenship. We can take time to acknowledge there is no singular internet or digital experience. We need a policy that is not colorblind. We need a policy that is attentive to our different voices and sensitive to our most marginalized and vulnerable communities.

To learn more about social justice education around technology and to sign up for our newsletter, please visit

— By Ivette Bayo Urban

Ivette Bayo Urban is a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington’s iSchool, part of FemTechNet, does a whole bunch of cool stuff like recently facilitating a session at the inaugural LSC Step Up event. In her research she’s had the opportunity to interview many people for whom digital access and literacy is not a simple matter.

One Reply to “Commentary: Digital Citizenship — prioritize people, not technologies.”

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful insight into this technology that seemingly invades every aspect of our lives. We need to remember technology is our tool and needs to be used wisely. Thank you for your work.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *