Here’s what we all need to focus on to help our children navigate their new world.
It starts at home
Last Christmas I gave my granddaughter her first cellphone. She was 9 years old. I struggled with the decision of whether she was ready for the device, and as a family Internet-safety advocate, I know the risks and dangers that lurk online.
So I did my research on a very local level. It was true when she said that all of her friends had them. They did. Her parents wanted her to have a phone to help with communication when she is at sports, a friend’s house and other places away from home. She is a responsible and mature girl, and so I decided to get it for her.
I don’t believe there is a magic age for when a child should receive his or her first digital device. The maturity level and sense of responsibility of every child differs. (In fact, I don’t think my grandson should have a phone when he is 9.)
Although I got her a phone, we are very careful about what she can do with it. At her young age, my granddaughter has very limited access to the Internet and is not a member of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
But one of her favorite spaces is YouTube. She could spend hours, if the adults in her life let her, watching gymnastics or funny animal videos. For now, she is enjoying her limited time online only when she’s with me or her parents. Her texting and calls are limited to her close friends and family — there are only nine people in her contact list.
Talking about digital hate
One of the biggest fears I have for my grandkids is the possibility that they will encounter online cruelty. As a victim myself, I know that people can be mean online and that cyberbullying can be more devastating to youth than traditional bullying.
We must prepare our kids for the reality that this is a part of our world, and more importantly, we have to equip them with the skills to be proactive digital citizens rather than reactive ones.
I don’t believe in fear-mongering; however, I share headlines with my grandchildren of stories that have lessons they can learn from. My hope is by the time they get to middle school, digital literacy lessons will be part of their curriculum.
Problems youth will face
Online shaming is particularly damaging to young people. Depression and suicide rates in teens are rising and grades are dropping. Sexting scandals, middle and high school slut pages, and the exchange of nudes are just some of the things that youth will face in their digital world.
What I can do as an adult is give my granddaughter the courage and strength to face online pressures, and provide her with knowledge so she won’t send sexual images, ever.
We parents and grandparents need to become digital leaders. We need to prepare our children for the fact that hate and online targeting happen. For example, since my granddaughter loves YouTube so much, I had her watch Amanda Todd’s final message to the world from her favorite platform. After much online bullying, Todd took her own life. It’s a horrible thing to know, but if we are putting devices into our children’s hands, the message is timeless.
Digital hate and online shaming have two sides.
A common misconception is that cyberbullies are some sort of ugly monster, when in reality they can be any one of us. According to a Stanford University study, under the right circumstances, we all have the ability to become someone we don’t like online.
The way to combat the trolls among us is through teaching and showing empathy. This is good news for parents and grandparents, because you don’t have to be digitally savvy to be empathetic.
Parenting expert Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, argues that a decrease in basic empathy has created a culture ripe for online attacks.
Researchers at the University of Michigan crunched data that tracked years of incoming college freshmen empathy and found that it has declined by 40 percent in the last three decades — while narcissism has risen by 58 percent.
This inability to see those on the other side of the computer screen as people deserving of compassion is one of the huge drivers of our culture of cruelty. “Depersonalization is what’s happening,” says Borba. “In a lot of these [cybershaming] cases, the person is hundreds of miles away; you’ll never be face-to-face. It becomes an easy click.”
Parents and grandparents need to cultivate empathy in our children offline so when they are faced with difficult online decisions, they make the right ones. It can be as simple as deciding whether to share a questionable photo of your friend, or to forward a mean meme that someone believes is funny, or to make a snarky comment that would be inappropriate. These are all online choices, and having a bit of empathy helps kids make the right choice.
Look at yourself. Be a model.
The best advice I share with parents and grandparents is to not only monitor your child, but to also monitor your own online behavior.
My granddaughter loves reading about me online and watching my digital activities. But sometimes this stings, especially when she reads some of the hateful comments that have appeared about me online. Of course, sometimes I’m proud when she reads the positive things too. In either case, I’m there with her, helping her understand how all of these things can end up online.
Be sure your child or grandchild can look up to you online, as well as come to you without judgment if something negative appears too. Open communication, education and empathy will trump online shaming and hate every time.
Sue Scheff’s new book, Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate (Sourcebooks) provides guidance for preventing, surviving and overcoming digital disasters. She tweets @SueScheff and blogs at suescheff.com.