School is off to a running start. Whether or not it is in-person or online, kids are using computers more than in years past. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to help kids understand what shapes wise, healthy, and kind digital citizens. It’s not something they (or we!) are born with or wake up knowing. Kids and teens may be the most tech-savvy creatures on the planet, but they are (sometimes) also the most unaware about how to be wise digital citizens. Understanding five core truths will help them make wiser decisions as they navigate the digital world.
1. Wise Digital Citizens Understand that the Digital World is Public.
There is no private message or disappearing photo that can’t be made public. Screenshots, using one device to take a photo of another device, and a quick “copy and paste” are a few of the ways that images and words shared electronically can be saved and shared by the recipient to an unintended recipient.
This is a difficult truth for kids to grasp for two reasons. First, they trust their friends. They believe that the person with whom they are communicating would never share something that wasn’t supposed to be shared. Most kids on most days wouldn’t, but as preteens and teens navigate the world of adolescents, they sometimes forget to consider the consequences of their actions and make unkind choices. Talking about this with your children is important and also tricky. The idea of accusing a friend of doing something “bad” will likely not be received well. Instead, talk about how accidents happen. Perhaps you once shared something that you didn’t know was meant to be confidential and had a friend be hurt or mad at you? The concept that this could happen is more important to discuss than how and why it could happen. When kids understand that everything is potentially public, they will be more cautious about what they digitally share.
Secondly, they trust devices and systems. One idea to help kids understand that information shared on a platform may be owned by the platform is to have them read the privacy policies before being allowed to use the platform. Read it with them, and discuss what is actually private and what is actually owned by the company. When they realize what those policies say, they may think twice before hitting send.
2. Wise Digital Citizens Understand that the Digital World is Forever.
Similar but different to the “digital is public” truth, digital is forever. Only a few short decades ago, when a note was passed between students in school or a photograph shared, it could be torn up into tiny pieces, doused with water, and throw in the trash, even burned or put through a shredder. It would take a CIA-level forensics lab to even attempt to reassemble the message if there were any physical paper or part of the photograph remaining. Kids could truly destroy something they wrote or a photo of themselves.
All the same ways of saving things that were mentioned above apply here. That not only means that words and images can be shared but also that they can be stored. Forever. It’s not entirely unheard of for a business or educational institute to learn more about an individual through social media or an Internet search. Preteens and teens struggle with the idea of long-term consequences by the very nature of their maturity. Have your kids ask themselves, before posting: “What would I think about it if an adult I admired posted or shared the same thing? Would it be bad?” One day, they will be grown-ups with authority and influence, and understanding that everyone could potentially bring up their past could be reason enough to make better digital choices.
Take a few minutes and research public figures and celebrities who have “fallen” because of their past. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s unfair to judge someone as a 50-something for a sentence they said as a 15-year-old. Nonetheless, the world isn’t fair, and kids should understand that their posts, comments, and images shared digitally will remain open to criticism forever and could cause them problems years later.
3. Wise Digital Citizens Understand that the Digital World is Human.
It is approximately one-billion-times easier to say something mean across cyberspace than to someone’s face. Looking someone in the eye is powerful. Extreme emotions are easier to express when you don’t have to look the person in the eye and deal with the consequences. Cyberbullying is outrageously common, especially for young girls. For example, it may be hard to physically get up and move everyone at a lunch table, leaving one person to eat alone, but it takes less than a second to delete someone from a group chat or post a nasty comment on someone’s Instagram post.
Ask your kids to think of a time when someone said or did something hurtful? Then ask them about something hurtful said or done online. They may shy away from sharing a story where they were personally attacked, but they will have plenty of kids being mean, especially digital ones. Regularly ask your kids how they see others being kind online, as well. Together, brainstorm ways to lift up and encourage others proactively. Remind them that those stories matter, and it’s not always talking about the hard stuff. A wise filter: “Would I say or do this if I were looking at the person face-to-face?” If not, then don’t say or do it digitally, either.
4. Wise Digital Citizens Understand that the Digital World is a Security Risk.
Full names. Emails. Phone numbers. Addresses. Birth dates. The amount of data systems and strangers can get from profiles is disturbing. The same is true for using public wifi and clicking on links from unknown senders. Hackers don’t limit their attacks to adults, and if they can get a child’s data, they can make their life miserable as they grow up and begin interacting as an adult.
Referencing the “digital is public” point, have family ground rules for what is shared in a profile, especially those that are public on platforms or in systems by default. Read the fine print to know what you can hide from strangers when you are entering personal information. Talk about how to create unique passwords, where to store those passwords, and how never to click on a link sent by someone you don’t know. Have expectations for what kind of apps you use to transfer money, and make sure that kids know to never share things like their social security number.
Be specifically cautious of in-app purchases. Free games and downloads come with extras that get quite pricey quickly, and if a device is connected to the App Store or Google Play without preventing downloads or purchases, the credit card attached to the account could be charged.
5. Wise Digital Citizens Understand that the Digital World is Powerful.
Words, images, and videos all shape us. Studies show how viewing porn can be addictive and alter brain chemistry, and that is a massive problem in our world today. However, consider how the kind of content your kids consume shapes their behavior in other ways, as well. Most kids (and adults!) will say that media doesn’t shape us, but it’s difficult not to reflect on what we consume or not become numb to things that should bother us.
One mom of a middle schooler took away the privilege of watching a popular show aimed at preteens because the main character treated her parents disrespectfully. The mom started noticing that after she watched the show, her daughter would treat her and other adults that way. This young preteen had no intentions of being rude or inappropriate. However, she loved this show and thought the main character was “so cool.” Even if it wasn’t conscious or intentional, she emulated the way the character talked. Discuss with your kids how media can influence thoughts and behavior, even when it’s not intentional.
Digital parenting is one of the most amazing, difficult, and important aspects of parenting. Having conversations about the power of digital communications will help your kids thrive, and Canopy can help. We block porn, deter sexting, allow you to manage apps and websites, and can’t be removed from a child’s device without your permission.
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