Their rules, set forth in first-day coloring sheets and vibrant classroom bulletin boards, offered messages that would hopefully create a safe learning environment — a place where kids would know how to act, how others would act and how the teacher would respond when things went wrong. While their rules were presented differently than mine, both sets of students started the year with a contract of sorts.
When most of us hand our kids a smartphone, we give them rules for device usage. “Don’t go on YouTube,” we tell a 6-year-old while we impatiently wait for food at a restaurant. “Don’t record me while I’m driving,” we remind a 9-year-old on a road trip while he plays with his tablet in the back seat. “Don’t post that picture!” we implore our 14-year-old as he shares on Instagram.
Unlike the guide I write in my syllabus or the colorful words posted in an elementary school classroom, though, our words over technology tend to focus on what children shouldn’t do instead of what they should do. What if we reframed these conversations to empower our kids instead of inhibiting them?
Children need support from caring and involved adults to develop healthy autonomy, says Joy Gabrielli, an assistant professor and clinical child psychologist at the University of Florida. “Full technology restriction may not be the best answer,” she says. Instead, we need to provide our kids with age-appropriate opportunities to develop skills for effective and safe technology usage.
Parents and educators want to protect our kids online. The temptation is to do this from a place of fear rather than a place of empowerment. We grew up with chores and classroom expectations, but we weren’t exposed to online games and social media news feeds. We learned how to communicate emotions using facial expressions, not emoji. We have no digital parenting road map, and this inexperience often leads to fear, which informs our approach.
Here are some key messages set out by Safer Internet Day, an international campaign that takes place in February, to help us find ways to empower our kids to thrive in the online world.
Be kind. Instead of just telling kids not to bully other kids online, talk about ways to be kind. Remind kids that compliments are as powerful via text as they are face-to-face. In her book “Shame Nation,” Internet safety expert Sue Scheff talks about the importance of combating harassment and shame online. “Perhaps the very first place to start,” Scheff writes, “is with a renewed emphasis on teaching empathy to our children.”
Gabrielli suggests that parents do this by modeling empathy in our own online behavior. For example, we can ask kids to help us formulate responses to social media posts. We can also use online comments left by others as springboards for discussion.
Look for online role models. We spend so much time telling kids whom not to watch on YouTube that we miss powerful opportunities to broaden the circle of influence. But there is often a counterpart positive online role model for every negative one, Gabrielli says. We can steer them in a positive direction by doing research to align their interests with personalities who could foster their growth, instead of putting all our energy into finding out whose videos could harm them. Common Sense Media offers parents a list of vloggers that focus on more-positive messages.
Focus on ownership. “When creating or publishing anything digitally, students have the same copyright protection as any other content creators,” write Mike Ribble, Gerald Bailey and Tweed Ross, authors of “Digital Citizenship: Addressing Appropriate Technology Behavior.” When we think about teaching our kids about their rights, it might be helpful to think about it in a manner that can empower them — instead of saying, “You have no right to use that photo,” maybe it’s best to frame the lesson as: “That is your image. You have a right to its ownership.”
When our teens create digital content, we can prepare them for the possibility that someone might want to use their work without their permission. We can brainstorm not only how this would make them feel but also focus on remedies they can use to get credit for their work. Gabrielli encourages a two-way dialogue that allows lots of room for open-ended discussion.
Expect more from industry leaders and policymakers. While parents and teachers surely have a role to play in keeping kids safe online, industry leaders also must bear some of the burden. “Responsibility should be shared with all relevant stakeholders involved, including those commercial companies providing platforms services that are used by children,” write Eleonora Maria Mazzoli and Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics.
As the Federal Trade Commission amps up its efforts to review the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, we can encourage policymakers to strengthen the guardrails protecting kids by giving children safe access to online spaces. This could include ensuring that all kids (not only the ones under 13) are protected under COPPA. We can also advocate, as lawyer Brad Shear suggests, for a “National Student Data Deletion Day.” Under Shear’s plan, all K-12 public schools would delete students’ browsing history, work and behavioral information saved on third-party platforms.
Ask for help. Older teens and young adults, who grew up more connected than we did, can help us make the Internet safer for kids. We need to invite them into our conversations, hear their concerns and ask them to help us find the gaps between current policy and our children’s practices.
This might include holding a spot for teens on corporate advisory boards or inviting young adults to speak about their online experiences to PTA groups and high school students. Kids can educate adults about risks online as well, and by supporting them in identifying these risks, we can promote their safety.
We are beginning to sharpen our understanding of what kids need online. As Anya Kamenetz, an education correspondent at NPR, has written, perhaps kids have not only an interest in going online but also a right to thrive in online spaces. Children are going to explore their online worlds regardless of whether adults are ready for them to be there. It’s our job to find ways to make it safe for them.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal-skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she supervises the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Growing Up Shared.” Follow Stacey on Twitter @sgsteinberg or visit her website.