Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Key Role of Parents in Developing Online Social Skills

As social media becomes increasingly ubiquitous at all levels of society and is constantly trending in the news,  the interest in creating online connections is shifting to our youngest students. The societal pressures that cause this include the ubiquity of connected devices and the fact that our over-scheduled children are naturally seeking social experiences online since there are little or no opportunities for un-programmed social time with peers.

We recently discovered that our fourth grade students are beginning to explore online connections with each other outside of school. This is no surprise, as the world our children live in is a continuous blend of online and offline experiences, if not yet for themselves, certainly for their parents and older siblings. Our challenge is to guide our children as they enter this world of online communication and help them understand its power and its pitfalls. 

Our Children's Digital Health

Our first concern should be the emotional and physical health of our children. A good first step is to require that all digital devices be left in a central place at home, outside of bedrooms, during family meal times and when children go to sleep. This prevents temptation and distractions and creates a natural comfort with separating from online interactions. Another suggestion is to limit, or prevent, the use of texting apps in this early stage of their social development. Our children are still learning to negotiate friendships. Without the feedback of facial expressions or voice tones, they aren't always aware of the impact words or emojis have on their friends. Remind your children that when they are confused by a text or email message, they can and should pick up the telephone and call. It is nearly impossible to settle differences or solve problems through a text message or email.

The Pitfalls of Elite Groups

It is hard to resist the sense of power when engaging in a private group conversation, especially when the group feels exclusive and elite. Unfortunately, negativity is contagious and without a great deal of maturity and self-awareness, these chats often devolve into gossip and meanness, even for the steadiest of young children. Additionally, online communication’s removal from direct interaction, and the ability to keep one’s identity anonymous further encourages negativity. It takes a long time, with much discussion (and probably some mistakes) before our children are able to gain footing in the digital realm. The enduring understanding we aim for is that they bring their true human self to every digital interaction, and that their online actions impact others in the same manner as direct human interactions do.

Parents are the Training Wheels 

We can help our children develop as sensitive, thoughtful participants in the online world through ongoing family conversation. It is important to foster the understanding that they need guidance from you, just as they needed training wheels on their bikes, until they have learned to appropriately negotiate the complex differences between in-person and online communication. Moreover, our children need help to learn the rules of standing up to negativity, asking consent before sharing, and always having empathy for the real human on the other side of the screen. While this work may be going on at school, parents and siblings have the greatest opportunity to influence and guide from within the family structure.

While we are always amazed that our children seem to take to online tools with such ease and enthusiasm, this does not mean they are emotionally ready for the experience.  Your challenge is to help them find balance, make sure they are engaged with peers in person in un-programmed ways that allow them to learn the nuances of social interactions, and to have the conversations that will help them develop as responsible online citizens. 

Here is a great article from CommonSense Media about the role parents should play in their children's online experiences:

7 Reasons Parents Should Care About Kids and Online Privacy

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