No parent plans to raise an unkind, much less a cruel, child. In fact, most of us put considerable effort into polishing our children’s manners and teaching them to respect other people. Unfortunately, many of those lessons are being undercut online. Our culture, as a whole, is going through a rude and disrespectful era, a problem that seems to be amplified in and by online communication. Recent research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that one in four adults have experienced online harassment and 66% have witnessed it. The numbers are even higher for young people.
The Pew Study also pointed out that there’s widespread disagreement about what kinds of speech are unacceptable and what kinds of responses are appropriate. Some argue that in a free society, people have to be able to say whatever is on their minds, no matter how vile, and other people should just “shake it off.” Plenty of others feel that the culture itself is being degraded when citizens mock, deride and attack each other. They favor more involvement by service providers and even law enforcement. Many people oscillate, defending strong language when it’s used in defense of ideas that matter to them and criticizing it when it’s used by opponents.
Civility in the culture isn’t likely to be restored unless individuals commit themselves to respectful communication regardless of the venue. Parents can play a part by helping kids think through what they experience and do online. Sometimes that that may mean encouraging kids to protect themselves by disengaging from conversations and even communities in which abusive language is the norm. Other times parents may want to support children who want to take a stand on behalf of peers who are being mistreated. (Iwitnessbullying.org and kindness.org provide specific ideas and kid-friendly materials that can be deployed in the battle against online harassment in all its many forms.)
Before they can engage in that kind of advocacy, kids need to be grounded in the fundamentals. These principles may seem a little 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 the larger community.
No slurs of any kind—ever. Make it clear through your rules and your own habits that you have zero tolerance for words that denigrate people because of their race, sex, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation.
The pain of others isn’t funny. Steer kids away from television shows, movies and online videos that ask them to override their natural feelings of compassion and laugh at someone else’s misfortune.
Don’t spread rumors. Teach kids not to repeat—or forward–unkind things they hear about other people. This is rule is especially important if, for some reason, they don’t especially like the other person.
Appreciate privacy. Help your child understand that a message or photo sent by a friend should be treated 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, they can express their opinion but they aren’t 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 a laugh so the other person knows you’re not serious. Online, it’s much harder to differentiate between a comment that’s meant to be funny and one that should be taken seriously. Emoticons and other visual cues may help but they, too, can be misinterpreted.
Think twice about insults. Everyone seems to use them as a way of being clever. Some parents even tease their kids with put-downs. The question we all have to consider is why it’s amusing to undermine another person’s self-esteem. Online, especially, it may be time to revive the old-fashioned rule: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Perhaps the most helpful thing parents can do is help children visualize the person on the other end of online communication. Imagine saying the same thing face to face. What feelings would the other person have? What expressions would be on his or her face?
Now, ask your child to turn the conversation around. What if another person said to you what you were thinking about writing in a text or posting on Snapchat? How would you feel? What would you want to do?
These questions are, of course, a new way of getting kids to think about the very ancient and universal moral rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This simple principle survives because it helps people recognize cruelty and practice kindness–two capabilities that are crucial in every human interaction regardless of where it occurs online or in the three dimensional world.