Teaching Kids to Be Kind Online

Shutterstock 430066057
Shutterstock photo

No parent plans to raise an unkind child. Most of us put considerable effort into polishing our children’s manners and teaching them to respect others. Unfortunately, many of those lessons are being undercut online.

Recent research by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project suggests that one in four adults has experienced online harassment and 66 percent have witnessed it. These numbers are higher for young people.

The Pew Research Center also points out that there is widespread disagreement about what kinds of speech are unacceptable and what kinds of responses are appropriate. Some argue that in a free society, people should be able to say whatever is on their minds, no matter how vile. Others feel that our culture is being degraded when citizens mock, deride and attack each other. They favor more involvement by service providers and law enforcement.  

Civility isn’t likely to be restored unless individuals commit themselves to respectful communication. Parents can play a part by helping kids think through what they see and experience online. Sometimes that may mean encouraging kids to disengage from conversations and communities in which abusive language is the norm. Other times parents may choose to support children who want to take a stand on an issue on behalf of peers who are being mistreated.

Before they can engage in that kind of advocacy, kids need to be grounded in fundamentals. These principles may seem old-fashioned, but they aren’t obsolete. They survive because they are the basis for healthy, respectful relationships at home, in school, and eventually in the workplace and larger community. 

No slurs of any kind — ever. Make it clear through your rules and habits that there will be zero tolerance for words that denigrate people because of their race, sex, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. 

Someone else’s pain isn’t funny. Steer kids away from TV shows, movies and online videos that ask them to override their natural feelings of compassion and encourage them to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.

Don’t spread rumors. Teach kids not to repeat — or forward — unkind statements they hear about other people. This is especially important if, for some reason, they don’t like the other person. 

Respect privacy. A message or photo sent by a friend should be regarded as confidential. Online communication should not be forwarded or posted without permission from the person who sent it. 

No tantrums. Offline, if your child doesn’t like something another person does or says, he or she can express an opinion, but shouldn’t be allowed to scream and curse. A dispute online is no different. No ranting. No offensive language. No personal attacks. 

Be careful about humor. Offline, sarcastic comments are often accompanied by a smile or laugh so the other person knows you’re not serious. Online, it’s harder to differentiate between a comment that is meant to be funny and one that should be taken seriously.

Think twice about insults. Some people cast out insults as a way of being clever. The question we need to ask is, “Why is it amusing to undermine another person’s self-esteem?”

Parents can help children visualize the person on the other end of the online communication. Ask them to imagine saying the same thing face-to-face. How would that make the other person feel? If the tables were turned, how would that comment make your child feel?

These questions get kids to think about the universal moral — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This principle survives because it helps people recognize cruelty and practice kindness — two capabilities that are crucial in every human interaction, regardless of where they occur in the digital world.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., is the author of “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.” This will be her last Tech Talk column. We appreciate the guidance she has offered our readers over the years and wish her the best of luck as she moves on to other projects.