Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith, your child’s decision to post inappropriate content online is why we’ve decided to rescind our previous invitation to attend Harvard University.
Can you imagine getting an email or a phone call to that effect? Hopes and dreams dashed because of a careless, crude, or unwise online conversation a very bright kid assumed would be kept private. Every day it becomes more and more clear that hasty, online choices can have permanent, real-world consequences.
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That very scenario recently happened when Harvard University announced rescinded admission letters of 10 students accused of sharing sexually explicit and sometimes racist images in a private online message group.
Such a sad, albeit familiar, headline peppering our digital peripheral today. Only this time, the consequence happened to would-be Harvard students, (which obliterates our private, silent theory that perhaps it’s only ignorant, unsupervised, aimless kids that mess up [big time] online).
The task for parents armed with the lesson of this latest story? It may be a chance to maximize the summer hours with your kids and zero in on homeschooling in Social Appropriateness 101. Could the faux pas’ and slip-ups be closer to your family’s domain than you are comfortable admitting?
So where do we start? Rather than go aimlessly into Google universe, here’s a primer to help you equip your kids to make wise choices online.
Social Appropriateness 101
- Grow, value discernment. How do we teach our children to invest the necessary thought into all those hours of mindless clicks? How do we keep from raising kids who are digital lemmings who just go with the flow? We make discernment, and growing it, a defined value in our home. Discernment — the ability to judge well — is a skill that develops over time. Sound digital behavior hinges on a child’s ability to discern between wise and unwise content; careful and impulsive behaviors.The online culture gives our discernment a workout every second. Information comes at us quickly and provokes a dozen emotions at once. Remember: If it’s tough for adults to pause and reflect before posting, imagine how tough it is for kids to show restraint and discernment online (don’t forget, kids’ brains do not fully form until they are 24)! Here are ten questions to help kids build judgment and critical thinking skills. A good rule of thumb in posting anything: When in DOUBT — just DON’T.
- Discuss empathy often. Empathy is making an attempt to understand another person’s struggle and is a powerful way to combat bullying and discrimination. Understanding and extending empathy force us to humanize those we often seek to stereotype, judge, or malign. As part of your homeschooling efforts, this summer, teaching compassion for others should be at the top of the list. For a deeper dive into empathy go over these points with your kids.
- Get back to basics. Kids often bemoan that teachers and parents deluge them with lectures about online safety and smart posting (mine does). Still, smart kids make dumb mistakes every day. So ignore the eye rolling and get back to the basics that help kids understand their digital footprint and the responsibility that comes with owning a digital device of any kind. Pose these questions to your child:
- Is this something you really want everyone to know that about you?
- What do you think this photo communicates about you (use adjectives)?
- Have you considered what the parents of your friends, a teacher or a coach might think of you or your friend if they saw that post?
- How do you think that person would feel if he or she saw your post about them a few years from now?
- Role play. One of the best ways to grow your child’s empathy muscle is to role play. Find teachable moments in which empathy has been overlooked. Has a friend been neglected for a party invitation? Is someone not present being mocked or talked about in a cruel way? Look for opportunities to explain and illustrate empathy. Role playing brings insight and compassion up close for a teen. Ask your teen to play the part of the person under attack or who is different in a situation. Ask your teen questions or make value judgments that will challenge him or her to verbalize what another person might be feeling or thinking. This is an excellent way to challenge stereotypes and prejudices.
- Introduce media literacy. Raising kids who are critical thinkers, who can wisely create, and share wise content, is among the top parenting goals of the digital age. Media literacy, as defined by the National Association for Media Literacy, is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. Media literacy is a skill that allows digital users to become critical thinkers and creators, effective communicators, and active digital citizens. This means we all play a role in making the Internet a safe place to exchange ideas and appropriate content. Cyberwise.org is a great learning hub equipping parents in everything digital.
- Read a little more. Lay aside the fiction this summer and up your digital IQ. Read blogs, books, and news on internet safety, kids online, reputation management, new apps, and trends in social networking that could impact your family. A recent study conducted by Common Sense Media revealed that 30 percent of teens who are online believe their parents know “a little” or “nothing” about what social media apps and sites they use. Still, those same teens admitted their parents have the biggest influence on determining what is appropriate and inappropriate online. So prove those lingering doubts wrong and read more about how to boost your tech IQ. Set up a Google Alert to keep up with online trends that affect your family. Google alerts pull relevant content from the web and deliver them directly to your inbox.
- Be the digital example. If you want to get serious about influencing your child’s digital habits and leading in this area, be the example of a balanced, empathy-driven digital life. Limit your time on social networks when at home, unplug consistently, post and comment wisely, and always keep your emotions in check online. Part of being the example includes being able to admit your digital mistakes. Kids need to know you aren’t perfect and learn from how you handled a digital situation such as cyberbullying, a political argument, or even a tech addiction. Be open, honest, and candid in leading your kids in social appropriateness.
- Repeat the risks. Kids become desensitized to potential hazards online and even develop a false sense of security and privacy (as seen in the Harvard case). This attitude opens them up to some severe consequences. Observe your child. If she seems overly confident, blows off your safety concerns, it’s time to step up the appropriate sharing talk.
The quest to teach kids more about social appropriateness includes knowing exactly where to look for reliable, easy-to-understand information. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed, so many parents give up too soon and live in denial about what their kids really do online. Choose your favorite resources, and simply keep up — it matters. Sources to explore include: Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), Above The Fray, Cyberwise.org, online safety blogger and author Sue Scheff, Common Sense Media and, of course, McAfee Family Safety.