Digital Citizenship in South Africa – What is it and why must we be aware of it?

Parents, teachers fail to fully understand life online: Digital Citizenship in South Africa

As media stories appear on a daily basis of cyberbullying, sexting, privacy breaches and mental health concerns, schools have been forced to realise the critical importance of digital citizenship education, and how to support their learners with regard to the risks of smart devices and social media.

According to, digital citizens think critically about what they see online, understand the benefits and risks of sharing information, and balance screen time with other activities. But digital citizens require guidance  — they’re taught by parents and teachers to be responsible, safer, smart and ethical digital citizens. Currently, there are very few digital citizenship programs in South Africa.

Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, SA’s Premier Digital Life Skills Program, explains, “It took us three years to build our 10 different modules, given the extensive aspects of life online that needed to be covered. We use an international digital citizenship framework as our base, and then add some of the country’s top specialists, psychologists, mental health advocates and researchers. Consider the extent of the issues – the psychological impact on our children, the ever-evolving phone settings which need attention, the law, the vast landscape of apps, games and social platforms to cover – MySociaLife studies this every day, and it’s still a job to keep up. How will teachers be able to teach this topic at the rate of change in technology? Many students tell us that most adults don’t have a clue about their life online.”

Education requires programs like this to provide teens and tweens with a framework of how to be intelligent, sensitive, and resilient digital citizens – at home, their parents admit to being uncertain about how to teach it too,” says McCoubrey.

MySociaLife approaches the training by supporting all those in the chain of guiding teens and tweens – with four different programs that inform parents, teachers, school counsellors, and Grade 4 to 11 students with the end goal of helping children feel safer and behave smarter online.

“This is not just about safety, though, it’s about the foundational skills to excel once you have the basic awareness. With the incessant headlines around The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), as well as reduced jobs due to AI and Machine Learning, those that are aware and conscious digital citizens will be a prized asset in the 2030 workplace.”

Aside from in-school training, McCoubrey speaks locally and internationally on the skills our children will need in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Digital Life Skills and Digital Citizenship and will next be presenting at The World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, November 19-21 – a global reference point in new approaches to education.

So how does one teach good digital citizenship?

One could start with these great guidelines, from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE):

1.     A good citizen advocates for equal human rights for all.
2.     A good citizen treats others courteously and never bullies.
3.     A good citizen does not damage others’ property or person.
4.     A good citizen communicates clearly, respectfully, and with empathy.
5.     A good citizen actively pursues an education and develops habits for lifelong learning.
6.     A good citizen spends and manages money responsibly.
7.     A good citizen upholds basic human rights of privacy, freedom of speech, etc.
8.     A good citizen protects self and others from harm.
9.     A good citizen proactively promotes their own physical and mental health.

“These guidelines are a good start and we have a specific set of our own that we have carefully sculpted, but smartphones, social media and online safety evolve faster than any other part of the school curriculum. What’s trending this term is over next term so it’s more about how we uphold these guidelines within the context of what’s trending, or what we are using daily, that matters,” says McCoubrey.

“Our ten modules – critical thinking to bullying, to digital footprint, and mental health, among others – unpack the prizes and pitfalls to thousands of students on a term-by-term basis. Any digital citizenship program requires frequency, returning time and time again, and building trust with this (often sceptical) audience. The irony is that, while these learners know a lot about the technology, they lack the critical thinking and life skills training, and how that is realistically illustrated to them with regard to their daily interactions on these platforms. It requires someone outside the school, an external voice – someone who approaches it differently – and has the knowledge of what’s trending to capture teens and pre-teens attention.”

Digital Citizenship is a call to action to SA schools to ask themselves if they have sufficient digital education in place. Is it covering the diversity of issues, and does the instructor have a credible voice, the buy-in, and the experience?

“These are fundamental learning blocks for a generation that is growing up online, and will enter a high-tech workplace. It’s an absolute no-brainer to get started on this as soon as possible and to do it right,” McCoubrey concludes.

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