Sometimes the world our kids are growing up in feels totally foreign to us as parents. When we were little, entertainment was playing outside or watching Saturday morning cartoons. These days, kids have 24/7 access to television, movies, video games, and more. By the age of 12, the majority of kids in America have cell phones, and nearly all kids have used some sort of mobile device.
But the truth is, the world isn’t all that different today than it was when we were little. The fundamental lessons I teach my kids are the same as my parents taught me: be kind to others, do your best work, and try to make the world a better place.
That doesn’t mean that our kids, especially as they get older, don’t need some specific parental guidance when it comes to new technology. We all know that our kids should never give out private info online or invite strangers into their lives. But in addition to that, lessons in how to be a good citizen online are a huge part of raising ethical kids. So how do we, as parents who didn’t have all this access to information, teach our kids how to manage it?
Here are four “new” parenting challenges that vex parents, as well as tips for teaching your kids to be good citizens of this new world.
1. Cyber-bullying and online exclusion
Most older kids these days are active on social networks like TikTok, Instagram, SnapChat, and Twitter. You don’t have to be an expert in each one to know how to guide your kids through their use, however.
The first rule of social networking is to stop, think, and empathize before posting anything.
Encourage your kids to think about how sharing photos of a trip to an amusement park with their two besties might make their other friends feel, and the potential fallout. If he or she decides to post it, that’s fine. Your role was to guide them through making a thoughtful decision, not to control every choice.
It’s good to remind kids that anything they share online has the potential to last forever, even on Snapchat. Teens know this just as well as adults (probably even better!), so make this into a conversation rather than a lecture. Brainstorm what kind of posts could come back to harm them or others. Saying something mean about a friend, making an inappropriate comment on a news story, or joking about teachers may be tempting, but how would they feel if they were asked to defend it in real life?
Friends sometimes make mistakes and that’s a way kids grow. But it’s important to make sure your child isn’t taking part in cyberbullying, which is not that different from the bullying we grew up with. The fact that they can remain anonymous is a big change, however. Remind your child that if they wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, they shouldn’t say it online.
Make clear your family’s expectations around cyber-bullying, and let your child know the punishment they face, should they ever take part in it.
2. Sexting and explicit selfies
Feeling and expressing desire is normal, and it’s important to tell this to your older kids. Marnie Goldenberg, a health consultant and sexual health educator, reminds parents that as long as we’ve been able to communicate, we’ve been talking about our desires. Doing so over text or on an app like Snapchat doesn’t make it better or worse, just a little different.
Share your values about sexting, and ask your kids to think about their own comfort levels with sexting or exchanging explicit photos. Challenge them to think about what is right for them, and what is the right age to sext or exchange pics. Your teen may feel like it’s okay for him or her now, or they may want to wait until they’re married. Either way, you need to equip them for how to sext ethically.
The first rule is that sexts or sexy photos should only be sent if consent is given first.
Jamie Utt, a sexual violence prevention educator, offers some phrases to share with your kids, so they know what asking for consent can look like. Questions like, “Is it okay if I send you a picture? It’s sort of scandalous,” and “Can I tell you something I find hot about you?” are great ways to break the ice and see if your potential sexting partner wants the same thing you do.
Tell your kids that consent is non-negotiable, and to proceed only if the answer is clear and the person seems enthusiastic. Remind them that pouting or being mad because someone doesn’t want to sext is mean and unacceptable.
Teens also need to know what to do with a sext or explicit photo after they’ve received it. The answer is always the same: delete it.
Rosalind Wiseman, author of the indispensable book about the lives of teen boys, Masterminds and Wingmen, explains that kids should be allowed one minute to enjoy a photo, and then they should delete it. Why? Because having an explicit photo on your phone carries a lot of risks. Your parents may see it, your friends may find it and share it, and you can get in trouble with the cops. Yes, the cops. In many states, minors can be charged with child pornography, even if the photos were sent consensually.
And of course, remind your teen that a sexy photo or sext was not meant for anyone else to see. Whether it was sent to you or someone else, sharing a private photo or message is not only unethical, it’s potentially illegal.
Sorry, parents, but porn is a part of our kids’ lives. That doesn’t mean we have to approve of its use, but kids need to be prepared for its existence.
Younger kids should know that it’s okay to be curious about bodies and sex, but that it’s better to ask parents or look for books meant for kids, than to look online. Marnie Goldenberg notes that porn isn’t a good teacher and can sometimes be scary or overwhelming for kids who aren’t ready to see it. Remind kids that they can always tell you if they’ve stumbled upon something they didn’t understand, and that you will be honest and open with them.
For older kids, make sure you’re talking about your family’s values in regards to porn, and ask your child to think about what they believe is right for themselves. Remind them that porn is generally a terrible teacher. It doesn’t really prepare people for the sex they’ll have when they get older, and it can give an unrealistic idea of what bodies and sex look like.
Underline the fact that explicit images aren’t always consensual, and that viewing things like hidden cameras, revenge porn, anything with minors, or up-skirt photography is never acceptable in your home and that punishments will be harsh if it happens.
Trolling is any action designed to bother someone online. It’s different from bullying in that it is often impersonal and designed to be disruptive rather than socially motivated. Sometimes trolling takes the form of pranks or obnoxious hijinks, but most of the time it’s rooted in identity discrimination, like fat-shaming or racism, or is designed to make a person feel unsafe.
Just like with cyber-bullying, talk to your kids about the fact that hurting or scaring someone online is no different than doing it in person, and tell them you expect them to behave the same way online as they would in person. Remind them that anonymity doesn’t actually protect your target from being harmed, and that the troll will still feel guilt or shame for hurting someone.
For older kids, it might be a good idea to listen to this moving story by Lindy West from This American Life about her cruelest troll. Ask your kid to think about what both the victim and the troll experienced, and how the troll could have better solved his problems.
One key to good parenting is open communication, so even if you make a misstep, just keep trying. Parental control software and limiting screen time can be great, but being an open and proactive parent is a much better way to protect your child.