We spend our days getting kids to recite “what goes online stays online” and “Be kind online”.
All very relevant phrases that we want to become built in mantras that our kids play on repeat, every time they update a status or upload a photo.
You would be hard pushed to find a kid that hasn’t heard this stuff before. For some, the reinforcement plays out beautifully every time they hit the keyboard or swipe the screen. But for many others, they just don’t get the fuss.
Maybe it’s just that some kids are ‘good’ kids who diligently take everything they are told on board? But I don’t think it’s only ‘bad’ kids that are stuffing up online (whatever a bad kid is). It’s all sorts of kids.
I think it comes down to a lot of the teaching we do, which very often tends to come from a place of fear.
We talk about predators, despite none of their friends being kidnapped. We tell them they’ll be labelled a paedophile if they send a raunchy photo to their friend. Unlikely. We tell them they will be unemployable if they continue to post duck face selfies online. Probably not.
But there are certainly ways their behaviours can get them in to a lot of trouble. Yes kids get groomed, yes kids face the law and yes kids miss out on scholarships, team captains and employment due to their online escapades.
When we talk about these behaviours however, we are often talking about our fears for them, because we want them to have those fears too.
But adult fears and kid fears are often very different beasts.
And our responses for when things go wrong can be very adult and thus very different too.
When a child gets cyberbullied we tell them to ignore. To close the screen or walk away. Many parents have no idea why a child would actually choose to go back and read harmful stuff about themselves. And yet they do. Over and over again.
Parents have no idea about why a child would upload an inappropriate video. And yet they do.
We don’t get why they need to use bad language, pick on classmates and harshly judge random people they don’t know. And yet they do.
We don’t really understand a lot of what kids do today. Yet they do it.
So how do we react when they do bad stuff online?
Many ask that very obvious but futile question “Why would you do that?”
Only to get a very obvious and futile response “I dunno”.
We know teenagers have a developing brain that makes some judgements fleeting and instantaneous with little thought for consequences.
We know they are happiest when taking risks and pushing boundaries.
We know they have heard all the cyber safe mantras before but often fail to recall them before they hit send.
So what do we as parents need to do?
Accept mistakes online
I think we need to accept that this is a difficult world for them to navigate and that mistakes will be made. Goodness knows there are enough adults stuffing up online on a daily basis.
Acknowledge mistakes online
We need to acknowledge the challenges. We can still tell them when they have made mistakes. But we might be better placed if we talk about outcomes that have occurred and how things could be done better next time. When we talk only about random consequences that just may happen one day, we are not remaining relevant. Acknowledge the mistake, talk about how it affects them and how they can do better.
Listen to the mistakes
When we berate and we threaten to take screens away, we miss the opportunity to talk, connect and guide better behaviour. Sure, removing the very thing that is causing the bad behaviour (figuratively speaking only) may work well when children are young. Controlling behaviour becomes increasingly difficult however, as they get smarter and more inclined to get around our more limited technical knowledge. So listening to them and paying more attention to their challenges will ensure that we are parenting from a place that still demands respect for themselves and others, but from a place that has perspective and understanding in mind.
Have clear expectations
We can certainly be clear about our expectations. We can talk about the need for our real life values to be mirrored in the online world. But we want to make sure that they are actually learning from their mistakes. We need them to know we are not aiming for perfection. Because that’s rarely possible. Especially online. But there are still boundaries and expectations that need to be followed, just as there are in the real world. Our expectations are more likely to be accepted if they are fair, discussed and agreed upon together.
Ultimately we want to be sure that the mistakes they do make will help them be better and will help them learn. We want to help them prevent the life changing, devastating errors of judgement, that we see over and over again by the many people, young and old, who have brought themselves undone online. To do this, we need to understand and help them understand, the complexities of this world, and the challenges that we are all facing as we strive to get it mostly right.