IF IT’S NOT OK ON THE SIDEWALK, IT’S NOT OK ONLINE
Last spring I had 75 Grade 2&3 students in a classroom for an Internet Safety presentation. The room was buzzing with energy. Elementary kids love, like really love, talking about the Internet. At one point, I asked the students to put up their hands if they believed that spending time online was “real life”. Not one hand went up. The room got quiet as they thought about what I was asking. Heads slowly began to shake back and forth. I asked why spending time online, either playing games or messaging friends was not real life. The answers were astounding…and make sense, when you’re 7 or 8 eight years old.
“Your looking at a screen, and the screen is a thing, it’s not alive.”
“You may be talking to a friend, but you can’t reach out and touch them…so it’s not real life because your friend isn’t actually there.”
“The computer is made of plastic…plastic is not life…its stuff.”
“A game is not real life…it’s just pretend.”
“Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s good.”
The implications of this innocent mindset are alarming. Our children do not understand that everything they do online has a positive or negative impact on their own psyche – those impacts are real. They learn what they think are “normal” behaviors by what they see online, by how others communicate with them, by the names they are called, by the bullying they see or experience. All the Instagram users in this group (about half of the kids) indicated they had seen naked pictures while using this app. (By the way, kids are supposed to be 13 year old to have their own Instagram account.) Every child who was playing Minecraft online indicated they had been sworn at by strangers and friends. Our little kids are learning that naked is normal. Our little kids are learning that swearing and name-calling are normal. No wonder Saffron receives calls asking us what to do when 9 years olds are sexting. No wonder our kids can literally be sucked into bullying situations online and not even realize the situation for what it is. They begin to think that being sworn at is normal and by the time they are teens report that being called a “bitch” is just a joke or a cute nickname. Our children need to be taught that what they see and experience online shapes their habits and personalities and that just because we see something a lot, just because it’s common, doesn’t mean its good for us or others.
Our younger children do not understand that what they say or do online can absolutely ruin someone else. They do not understand that when their emotions run high they will not think about consequences or control their impulses. All those “don’t talk to strangers” lessons? To our young children, the rules don’t apply online, because this stranger who talks to them isn’t real.
“When we talk to students about online being “real life” they get it.”
The good news is when we started talking about why being online is “real life”, the students got it. Taking online examples and putting the scenarios onto the sidewalk outside their school helped a lot and we were able to quickly show them that the impacts of behaviors online are very real. For example, we talked about that person in Clash of Clans who called a child a horrible name. If this same person walked up to a child outside of the school and called he/she a name, the child would feel uncomfortable and possible unsafe (a real reaction) and the parents or teachers would intervene and not allow this to continue (a real response) and the child would feel safe again (a real reaction). These sidewalk examples teach our kids that adults are willing and capable to step in to help out and that many times adults are needed to find a solution. Sidewalk examples allow kids to apply life lessons in a situation that makes sense to them. Kids need to know if it’s not OK on the sidewalk, it’s not OK online.
“Online is real life.”
The real message is this. Parents need to teach their kids that spending time online is “real life” and they need to diligently point out the positive and negative impacts of online experiences. This means that parents need to be aware of what their children are doing online, what they are experiencing, and limiting who can contact them. Constant reminders and discussions about respectful behavior on and offline are necessary until kids are adults. Parents need to set clear standards and expectations that their children will not only be respectful while online but that they will be respected online. Parental controls to keep children safe and respected online are necessary, but should not replace the conversations about what is real and what is not. Checking in with our kids to see what they’ve experienced online will offer endless opportunities to teach, remind, set limits and shape kids to become respectful and respected cyber citizens. Its this regular checking in with our kids that allows us to frame the lessons they are learning on line. Yes, sometimes we will need to use parental controls or time away from the internet to keep our kids safe. Many times we will be able to use the experiences of our kids online to generate discussions about what is appropriate and not appropriate and to show them where adults can step in and help out.