Parents, Clean up Your Act Online

by Leticia Barr- April 24, 2014 • 1:23 pm

We all know the best way to teach kids proper behavior is to model it, and we count on adults to behave in a way worth mimicking. Our cave-dwelling ancestors did this—it’s been in our DNA for forever. But though we’ve had millennia to practice, something about digital media has caused a striking percentage of us to regress when we talk to each other online, as if we’re starting at square one of civilization. A glance at almost any online article’s comments section makes clear that “mean girls” and bullies are as common in adulthood as they are in middle school hallways. For me, focused as I am on kid issues, cyber incivility among grownups was just another problem “out there,” until an incident in our school community brought it home. And made me realize that the way adults, especially parents, treat each other online does affect our kids. Probably more than we know.

This winter’s endless snowstorms in my home near Washington, DC, fueled more-than-usual chatter among our school community—in person, on social media and through listservs. We all kept each other informed and buoyed collective spirits (after the umpteenth day trapped indoors) by posting weather reports on Facebook, sharing snowman selfies on Instagram and planning sledding outings via digital PTA pages.

No surprise that some kids, before the snow even began to fall, were already tweeting the Montgomery County, MD, school system’s (@MCPS) and Superintendent’s (@MCPSsuper) accounts, hoping to convince the powers-that-be to delay or close school. Kids are always hoping for snow days! But in a subsequent letter to the community, Superintendent Starr said “Some of these ‘tweets’ were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework.” But others “were offensive and disturbing. Some were threatening to me and others. A few referenced my family. There was rampant use of racial epithets and curse words.”

In his letter, the Superintendent shared his legal responsibility to report the offensive tweets to the principals and security teams of the offending students’ schools. He wisely acknowledged, though, that those who posted inappropriate comments likely “were doing so without thinking,” citing an adolescent’s inability to “calculate risk/reward ratios in the same way that adults do.”

Fair enough. As adults, we’ve learned to consider our words’ effect on others. We expect kids, who are still practicing how to weigh consequences and control impulses, to misjudge. Kids will be kids.

Or so I thought. A couple months later, yet another blizzard threat came, and with it a rude email in response to a helpful link about make-up snow days … on a parents’ listserv. Obviously written (and unwisely sent) in the heat of irritation, full of words like “bickering” and “squeaky wheel complaints,” and suggesting we were “a community … wasting time on issues of low importance,” the post made me cringe.

Then I remembered how seriously we parents had taken our responsibility to address the students’ inappropriate tweets. And I didn’t just cringe. I bristled. Such lashing out! Such self-indulgent ranting, full of useless generalizations about our community! But most important, what an unproductive way to communicate a point of view. This kind of online behavior doesn’t help us reach solutions—it silences people, or brings out the worst in them. So on behalf of the parents who might have hesitated to reply for fear of being harshly judged (or who might have been tempted to respond in kind, fueling the fire), I decided to jump in and remind everyone about behaving appropriately, constructively and respectfully in our online community. If this is what we want our children to do, it has to begin with us.

But where do we start?

In his letter to the community, Superintendent Starr urged us to “start a conversation about how we can support our children … We not only have to teach our kids how to handle new technologies appropriately, but we also have to model that behavior in our own communications on social media and email. We need to talk about ‘cybercivility’: how we can help our children grow into responsible and caring adults who interact with one another in a civil, respectful way in using technology in a way that is healthy, productive, and positive.”

Because they were dealing with an entire district, Montgomery County Public Schools created a Cybercivility Task Force and invited the public to a Cybercivility Community Forum. But our efforts at home matter, too, and these everyday considerations become the backbone of the online civilization we’re collectively creating:

  1. TALK early and regularly with your children about treating others civilly online. If they’re old enough to watch you on Facebook or Twitter, or take pictures or send texts with your phone, they’re old enough for you to “narrate” for them your thought process before you “like” or comment or messages. Remind them how online communication is different from real-life talk—that is, it’s too easy to forget you’re addressing people on the other side of that screen.
  2. NOTICE how you talk with your spouse or other adults about online situations (which now largely constitute what “happens” during our days), within earshot of your kids. Do you hear yourself saying things like “Oh, so-and-so posted the dumbest thing today. I don’t know why I haven’t unfriended him.”? Or complaining about and repeating others’ offensive comments? Or repeating your own not-so-nice words, for a laugh?
  3. SHARE real-world examples (from the news or your own feed) with your kids of online communications gone awry and the consequences of forgetting The Golden Rule. Show them the good stuff, too—how terrific it feels to see all those caring, encouraging comments after you share a disappointment or worry on Facebook, for instance.

While specific social media tools may come and go, as long as we’re a society that communicates digitally, the need for cybercivility is here to stay. We need to hold ourselves—and the other adults in our community—accountable for teaching children how to create and sustain community offline and on. Starting with showing our kids how grownups should behave, instead of just talking about it.

Photo: db Photography | Demi-Brooke

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