Our children will go online sooner or later, whether we like it or not. The trick, as parents, is to teach them how to be a good digital citizen.

As the mum of a little boy who is toddling his way into the digital world, I’m honestly scared. The prospect of autonomous cars, augmented reality and holographic interaction haunts me, and this is coming from a mum whose job centres around technology and digital marketing.

A great deal of my fear is rooted in the unknown interactions my son will have with this emerging world. Couple this with news reports of cyberbullying, smartphone addiction and the need for documentaries such as Screenagers, and the temptation to throw my hands up and say it’s all too hard is real!

But because I know I cannot send my children into the world in bubble wrap, eternally device-free, it begs the question: How can we as mums prepare our little ones to be good digital citizens who can navigate the online world with the same style and grace we’d expect of them in the physical space?

Are there principles we can teach them before they call a smartphone their own?

Is there any wisdom we can instil that will direct their paths as they begin their own digital journeys?

Well, expert guidance and a little bit of mum common sense has led me to believe it’s possible. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

In the video below, tech mum Rachel Aitken talks more about teaching children to be good digital citizens.

Teach your kids that the internet is made up of people

We often think of the internet as a web of apps, code and technology, but it’s nothing without people. The foundation of the online space is human relationships and the thing that distinguishes us from mindless bots, artificial intelligence and algorithms is empathy. Teaching your kids to be happy when others are happy and to be sad when others are sad (as the Bible suggests in Romans 12:15) will go a long way when they’re scrolling Instagram or whatever the app du jour is when they’re old enough to care.

The foundation of any healthy human relationship is empathy. A revamp on the timeless book How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age states, “We are not empathetic creatures naturally, so we must work at it. Today there’s little excuse for misunderstanding or overlooking another’s perspective. Most of us are broadcasting the details of our lives, seeking significance or a sympathetic ear from anyone who will listen.”

Our children will be aptly prepared to join the online community if we can teach them to see life from other people’s perspectives, and much of this behaviour is learned through their observations of our social interactions.

Teach healthy digital citizenship through modelling healthy social interactions in person

The best way to develop healthy social habits is to observe them. Children will observe and mimic the way we treat others and we will see it play out in how they treat their peers, from friends to acquaintances to the mean girl who lives down the street.

Especially telling will be the way we model how to treat those who are different from us and those who are unkind to us. If room is given for them to be treated unfairly or unkindly, later it will be displayed in our children’s online behaviour. Our children are mirrors of the best and worst of us, and it will be much harder to enforce good digital citizenship if they have not observed it in the “real world”.

On the GoGuardian blog, a digital learning environment filtering system, an article entitled “Digital etiquette for being a good digital citizen” expresses that, “Being a good online citizen is more than being a safe internet user—it’s about being responsible, smart and having respect for yourself and others.”

Engage with technology in a way that’s worth emulating

Model how to be a good digital citizen

Not only will our children’s words mirror our words, but their relationships with their devices will also mirror ours. So it’s important that we engage with technology in a way that’s worth emulating.

One skill we can teach our children in preparation for their own online engagement is how to interact with technology. And this is best done through creating a rhythm in our homes of engagement and rest.

According to developmental and behavioural paediatrician Lisa Nalven of the Valley Center for Child Development in Ridgewood, New Jersey, USA, “Imitation is vital to the development of abilities ranging from language to social skills.”

Ensure your child observes you doing something else other than talking on the phone, watching TV and sitting in front of your computer. Spend time reading books, playing outside, looking them in the eyes and engaging in your favourite non-digital hobby.

In this way, when you encourage them to do something other than sit in front of the screen, their first retort won’t be that you should too.

Establish open communication and boundaries

One of our biggest fears as parents when it comes to the digital space is our children’s safety. We’ve been warned of the lurking danger of predators and paedophiles. And while there is little we can do to change this aspect of the world, we can ensure that we make our homes havens of safety with established boundaries and open communication.

For five years, former Queensland police officer Brett Lee was tasked with going on the internet posing as a child to catch online predators. In his investigations, he noticed four primary questions the predators asked him to assess the level of access and privacy they might have:

  1. “Are you in your bedroom?”
  2. “Do you talk to your parents about what you do on the internet?”
  3. “Does anyone else use this device?”
  4. “Are there any monitoring or filtering programs on this device?”

As online predators seek gaps in safety, we can create fortresses by establishing open communication from a young age. This can start by not punishing fibbing to the point where our children are scared to share the truth with us.

Another key point Brett made was that predators preferred to operate between 9 pm and 6 am. With this knowledge, it’s apparent that teaching precaution with strangers becomes increasingly important both in person and online, along with establishing boundaries with technology from an early age.

Teach that technology is a privilege not a right

Because at an early age our devices are often used as soothers, our babies and toddlers stake a claim to our technology. As a result, it’s easy to feel like they own our phones, tablets and the TV, especially if ownership is established by the person who can scream the loudest.

However, preparing them to go online will require us to take back control of our devices and establish the boundary that accessing technology is a privilege and not a right. Early boundaries will grow into the expectation that you as a parent will be regularly checking their devices, installing monitoring software and only permitting the use of technology in shared areas, such as living rooms and family rooms at designated hours.

Following this, it should be expected that technology privileges can be lost if the guidelines are not followed. The earlier this is set in place the more peaceful our homes will be as our children grow older.

Establish their rights in the digital space

The final rule can cause a bit of controversy but will go a long way in developing responsible digital citizenship: Establishing your children’s rights in the digital space as it relates to their digital identities.

Our children will be among the first to have their digital footprint span their life. Allowing them to narrate their own stories will go a long way in helping them take responsibility. This means being wary of posting, as parents, every aspect of their lives, from their most embarrassing moments to their punishments, bath times, storytimes and lifetime achievements. By being mindful of this and including them where possible in your decision to post, we will help them understand from an early age that they have a right to their digital identities and that what they post can have long-term consequences, which is a lesson we can all stand to ponder.

In summary . . .

So after all of that, I don’t claim to have it all figured out. However, I know that raising an empathetic child who respects others, feels secure in his family, has boundaries and is empowered to make a positive impact on the world, will walk confidently through the twists and turns of the digital world that awaits him. He may even teach me a thing or two!

How to be a good digital citizen?

1. Develop the ability to empathise
2. Treat others respectfully—online and in real life
3. Regularly engage in non-tech activities
4. Establish healthy boundaries with technology
5. Remember that technology is a privilege not a right
6. Be mindful of what is shared online

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