The internet has revolutionized the way we interact with each other. Whether enabling us to connect with family an ocean away or to build a virtual community around a shared issue, the web offers unprecedented global communication.
As positive as that can be, however, communicating through a screen poses a particular set of challenges, especially for children. Because they often cannot see the people with whom they're interacting, the screen can create a sense of distance and anonymity—which can affect their sense of how it's acceptable to behave.
Parents can play a major role in helping children navigate this space and help them learn to be good digital citizens. You can help them remember that once something is posted online, it doesn't ever really go away. Then you can help them use that knowledge to make thoughtful decisions about what to communicate, and to whom, and in what medium.
Be part of all their online communications. If it's time for a video chat with grandma, call her together—you can show your preschooler how the technology works and make sure that grandma is actually the person you reach.
Teach them to reach out in thoughtful ways. To help your preschooler learn to make conscious decisions about what to communicate, talk through your thought process as you decide to send a message to someone: "I think this silly picture of a cat would make Uncle Tim laugh. Should we send it to him?"
Teach them to think before they send. Ask "What do you think Uncle Tim will say when he sees this picture? Do you think he'll like it? You know…it might actually make him sad, since he just lost his cat. Why don't we send him something else?" Talking through your thought process this way can help them learn that there are actual people on the other side.
Model the kinds of interaction you'd like to see. Your child is learning from everything you do, so when you're online, act the way you'd like her to act. From time to time, reinforce the lesson by explaining why you're making the choice you're making.
Teach them to keep public communications positive. Writing "Congratulations on a great game!" can generate celebration in a public forum, which feels good for everyone involved. Communicating about conflicts, however ("I was frustrated that you never passed the ball to me"), should be done in private to avoid embarrassment and to keep a conflict from escalating.
Help them choose their messages carefully. Even when there's a screen between them and others, they need to remember that there are real people on the other end. A good rule of thumb is not to say anything on the computer that they wouldn't say to someone's face.
Encourage them to think before they send. It's easy to send messages but hard to take them back. When they're upset, help them find a way to pause before they send—like taking 10 deep breaths in and out, or shooting a few hoops before deciding what to do. This will help them calm down and think more clearly before putting something in writing that could be hurtful or that they may regret.
Talk about tone. There are no facial expressions in writing (and emoticons only get you so far), so it's harder to convey tone in writing than it is in speech. Brainstorm with your tween about ways to make his meaning clear—if you're writing an email together, try reading it back to him in a different tone than intended. For example, think about the different ways you can read something like, "Fine. Whatever you want." Is it serious? Sarcastic? Annoyed? Easygoing? Then try clarifying what you mean in the absence of tone ("That sounds fine—I don't have a preference, so whatever you want works for me.").
Take care with context. When teens share photos, captions can be key. For examples, images of a teen covered in blood can be quite jarring for viewers…until you realize that she's onstage, playing Lady Macbeth. If your teen is leaving out the context, try offering suggestions of what to call the picture…and let her know that her acting is so convincing that it really needs a caption so folks don't flip when they see it.
Be careful about what you communicate, particularly when there are character limits. Help them remember to consider this issue. When you misread something a friend sends you, share the story with your teen. Or ask if they know of times when a friend sent a message that someone else misunderstood, and how they now handle that kind of thing.
Look twice at links. Remind them that, when forwarding a link, they should check to make sure it actually links to what they think it links to…especially when sending something to a teacher, or to grandma.
This guide was created by Ask the Mediatrician®, a service of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children's Hospital. A non-profit research center, CMCH is dedicated to understanding and responding to the effects of media - tv, movies, music, video games, cell phones and the internet - on the physical, mental and social health through research, translation and education. If you have a question about the research behind these guides, go to www.cmch.tv or if you have a question about media and child's health, go ahead and ask at it www.askthemediatrician.org. The work of CMCH is made possible by Comcast and other generous donors.