Raising e- (empathetic) citizens

Most kids live as much of their lives online as they do offline. But on the Internet there are lots of ethical choices that don’t have to be made offline – especially when using social media. Kids are faced with decisions every day which can impact on their relationships with friends, peers and family.

Blog_1It’s never too early for your children develop a moral compass to guide them through those choices – in fact the younger the better!

While there’s no “one size fits all” formula for parents to help guide their kids in making responsible online decisions, there are general tips to keep in mind. These include: understanding where your child is at developmentally; getting to know the platforms and activities your kids use and enjoy; being informed by reading up on the issues; providing support and guidance when needed; and not panicking if things go wrong.

The most basic element of ethical development is empathy, the ability to ‘wear someone else’s shoes’ – to imagine and understand how other people are feeling. Nurturing empathy in kids is important because research shows that empathy can reduce bullying.

Blog_2You can start to plant the seed for empathy-building in toddlers and preschoolers by looking for opportunities to model and talk about feelings. For example, when your child sees something that makes someone happy or sad, explain to them how and why it made them feel that way.

By age five, you can introduce scenarios such as “how would you feel if someone took a toy away from you?” and “How might a friend feel if someone took away her toy?” These conversations can help children to understand that other people have feelings like they do.

Once children are around eight years old, they’re able to understand that people may feel differently from them in the same situation – for instance, other children may be scared of things that don’t frighten them or be upset by things that don’t bother them.

We can continue to encourage older kids to more actively put themselves in other people’s shoes by talking about real situations. It’s also important to teach teens and tweens that despite our best intentions, it can be hard to practice empathy when we’re feeling emotions like anger or fear. A good strategy here is teaching them to anticipate and recognize these emotions and to manage them by giving themselves time to cool down before responding, avoiding using emotionally-loaded words and reminding themselves of larger goals beyond scoring a point or winning an argument.

When it comes to communicating online, remind your kids that it can be hard to remember that the people they’re talking to are real people who have feelings. This is important because when we’re online, we don’t see or hear many of the things that trigger empathy in us, like a person’s tone of voice, body language or facial expression.

Finally, and most importantly, remember that as a parent you need to be a good empathic role model in order to help your kids develop the empathy they need to apply to all their relationships – both online and off.

There is a wealth of resources to support parents and kids in the new TELUS WISE program to help create a generation of.responsible  e- (empathetic) citizens.

Cathy Wing is Co-Executive Director at MediaSmarts.