Any child old enough to use a device that can access the internet needs guidance on how to navigate the digital world. Learn how to keep your kids—and their peers—safe with these lessons in digital citizenship.

By Jenna Autuori Dedic
November 06, 2020
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I remember the first time my brother and I logged into AOL in the 1990s. We gawked at the screen for a good 15 minutes as our dial-up service struggled to connect to the World Wide Web. We watched little animations move from the A to the O to the L until suddenly—we were in. Into what exactly? Well, we had no idea. But we knew we had landed in another world that we couldn't quite touch, but we were able to roam around in.

Today, the internet is an even vaster world filled with more places for our kids to wander. In the same way we tell our kids to never to get into a car with someone they don't know, most of us set safety rules of what our kids can and can't do online before they click and go. But there's a lot more to navigating the digital world nowadays than that.

"When children are exposed to the internet, there will always be some level of risk of the effects of technology on their lives, and how that risk can change the dynamics of their development," says Yuhyun Park, Ph.D., a trained statistician and founder of the DQ Institute, which measures child online safety around the world and is on a mission to make the digital world a safer place. Unfortunately, though, there is relatively little parents can do to change the environment of the internet.

The better alternative? Empower our children with the proper tools to engage with technology, explains Dr. Park. "You have to raise your kids with the values of your family whether it's happening online or in person," she says.

What Is Digital Citizenship?

Digital citizenship is your self-monitored habits that effect the digital communities you enjoy or depend on, explains Dr. Park. To be a good citizen, her team at DQ Institute wants parents to equip children with "digital intelligence," or a set of social, emotional, and cognitive abilities that enable individuals handle challenges and adapt to the demands of digital life.

Dr. Park pioneered the term digital intelligence because she wanted her children to not only be safe when conversing with people online, but be wise internet users in every capacity. Children with digital intelligence become good digital citizens who will better the digital communities they're a part of while still staying safe, explains Dr. Park.

As more and more kids are interacting digitally—with content and one another—the concept of digital citizenship becomes increasingly important. Here's how you can raise your kids to thrive as citizens in the digital world.

A Digital Citizenship Curriculum for Kids

"The digital world is a vast place for learning and entertainment. But it's in this digital world that kids are also exposed to many risks," says Dr. Park. Risks include things like cyberbullying, technology addiction, obscene and violent content, radicalization, scams, and data theft. Follow this guide for the top skills Dr. Park believes young children need to be good digital citizens:

The Lesson: Digital Identity and Emotional Intelligence

This is your online reputation. "You must have an awareness of the persona you have online and if it translates to the same person you are offline," says school psychologist, Francyne Zeltser, Ph.D. Will what you present to the world online change who you are when you're actually face-to-face with someone? "This is incredibly important for children to understand because you don't want them to think that what they say or do online should be any different than what they'd say or do in real life," she says.

Taking this a step further, ranting on social media or bad mouthing a friend is never OK because what you say online becomes your digital footprint that you can never escape or get rid of, warns Dr. Zeltser. "Children also have to understand that what they say online doesn't have a tone attached to it, so it can be misinterpreted or understood differently than the way it was intended," Dr. Zelster says. People interacting and having conversations online leaves room for misinterpretation, and feelings to get hurt.

How to teach it: The only way to up emotional intelligence online is to make sure kids are still getting enough in-person socialization. This is how they will learn how strong their relationships really are so when they are interacting online with friends, they're able to continue interactions in the same way. If your child only ever talks to someone they think is a friend online and never in person, do they understand if they are really friends or not?

The Lesson: Digital Use

How much of your free time, outside of school (remote learning or in-person) are you spending on social media, gaming systems or watching videos? "There needs to always be a healthy balance between screen time and doing things that promote creativity, as well as physical and human interaction," says Dr. Zeltser. Even things like independent reading should be kept to a minimum online. Not only do your eyes need a break from staring at a screen all day long, but your children need to know how to function without reaching for a device. "Parents need to make sure that kids detach from mobile devices and screens, especially when they have the opportunity to engage in person, like on playdates or when in the community. Those opportunities have become rarer and rarer, and so when they do happen kids shouldn't be watching movies, playing games, or watching videos on TikTok," she says.

How to teach it: If you want your kids to be good digital citizens, they need to be able to have a life outside of their devices. This is what makes them who they are, and if they are only interacting in a digital forum, they aren't opening themselves up to opportunities in the real-world, opportunities beyond the screen. Exposure to different activities and environments allow children to develop skills, grow confidence and explore new hobbies and desires.

The Lesson: Digital Safety

Probably the concern that's most on parents' minds when they think about their kids being active online, things like cyberbullying, online sexual behavior or reputational risk, violence and obscenities, are scary reminders of the trouble your kids can get into. We've all seen what happens on playgrounds, we've watched shows like 13 Reasons Why, and since 60 percent of kids have experienced at least one cyber risk, we have reason to be worried. "You can't protect your kids from the things that lurk on the other side, but you can teach them how to identify these risks and not engage," Dr. Zeltser says.

There are a few to teach digital safety to kids:

When appropriate, discuss news about cyber bullying and privacy issues with the whole family. "Use these events as icebreakers for conversations about what is and isn't OK online—and what you and your child can do during an unsafe situation," explains Dr. Zeltser. Ask how your child might respond to certain incidents, and invite feedback about how you can best help them with any issues online. Remember that both of your responses are likely to change as your kids age, so keep these dialogues ongoing.

Monitor for behavior and mood changes. It's rarely advisable to betray your child's trust by scrolling through their text messages or private communications without their knowledge. This can easily backfire and lead to even more secretive behavior, warns Dr. Zeltser. Instead, watch out for mood changes and an upticks in online activity which are red flags when something isn't going well online, experts say. "If your child seems increasingly or emotionally preoccupied with their phone or computer, it could be a warning sign," Dr. Zeltser says.

Come to bullying solutions together. Many kids don't tell their parents that they're being cyberbullied. Kids might feel embarrassed or ashamed to let you know they've been targeted. (Sometimes very young kids don't recognize teasing as bullying, but that's often how it starts.) They also might be afraid your involvement will make things worse. "Make sure you and your kid agree on what the outcome should be," suggests Dr. Zeltser. Rushing to a solution won't help—research shows that peers sticking up for one another or themselves is an effective defense against bullies.

Prepare your child for bad behavior before it happens. Dr. Zeltser suggests that you teach your child to do the following: sign off the computer, ignore the attacks, and walk away when teasing online begins. Don't retaliate or say things back to your bully. "They want to get a reaction out of you so you don't want to let them know their plan worked," she says. When possible "block" the bully from communicating with you online or unfriend him/her to prevent further engagement. If it helps, have your child delete messages the bully may leave them so the unpleasantness isn't given any headspace. "When the bullying won't stop, start printing and saving messages and comments as evidence. As a parent this is when you should step in," urges Dr. Zeltser.

When it comes to monitoring violence and obscenities, always have your child using their digital devices within view so you can keep an eye on what they're doing. If you wouldn't approve it on the TV screen, then your child should know it's not OK on the computer either.

The Lesson: Digital Privacy

As the lines between online and offline activity continue to blur, we are increasingly questioning the extent to which nefarious individuals may be lurking on our kids. We have to start teaching kids to do critical thinking. Researchers from the University of Maryland and Princeton University gave children a series of hypothetical scenarios, such as asking how they thought a child their age would respond if, for example, a sibling or parent looked at their device over their shoulder, or an unknown person asked for their address in an online message. Children in this study (5 to 11 years old) generally understood how privacy and security play out online. When asked about sites like YouTube, they seemed to understand that the person posting videos was displaying a personal experience for a wider audience to see. So what is shown or posted online should not be something personal. ("They can steal our stuff, Mom," my 6-year-old daughter told me when I asked her about this concept.)

If we dig a little, we will see that kids seem to get it. Researchers said nearly all kids interviewed knew that certain types of information, like passwords, were sensitive. They also recognized that it was OK to share information with certain people, like parents and teachers, but not with less familiar acquaintances or strangers. Some adults I spoke to said that while they take steps to supervise their children's technology use, they didn't think it was a priority to talk to kids as little as 5 and 6 years old about privacy and security online. While these parents knew these concerns are a real thing, most parents wanted to wait until their kids got closer to the age of owning their own smartphones or being allowed to spend time on social media websites.

How to teach it: Dr. Zelster suggests starting talking to your children about the digital world as young as possible. "Show your kids there is an online world that includes social media like Facebook and Instagram. Let them see and have an opinion about what you post, especially content that includes them. They will have a better understanding about how what they're doing in the real world is being shown online. And see how that makes them feel. Respect your child's opinion and avoid posting content that they are not proud to have shared," she says. So if my daughter doesn't like a picture I want to post, I don't post it and she gains a better sense of personal privacy. "The sooner kids can relate that the rules they have in the real world exist in this largely invisible digital world, they will have a deeper grasp of longterm implications of their digital actions," Dr. Zeltser says.

Any parent can give their kids access to the DQWorld.net platform to test their digital citizenship skills. (To unlock the entire program, parents need to pay $10.) The DQ World program is catered to children ages 8-12, and requires parent activation.

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