How to Talk to Children About Online Behavior

Growing up in the digital age requires an entirely new set of rules. Some, as The New York Times recently noted, are created by the very kids who are navigating their way through the virtual world; others are established by parents and the policies set forth by the schools children attend. To help us understand how to set kids up for success in the time of Snapchat, we asked experts at three schools to weigh in on boundary-setting, starting a conversation about social media, and the anxiety children can feel when they must go offline. Here are their recommendations:

Set boundaries. Mandy Miller, the Upper School counselor at The Savannah Country Day School, recommends engaging in ongoing discussions with your child about his or her online activities before issues arise. For example, she suggests talking to your child about which websites, games, and videos are appropriate for them and why. If your child visits a site that’s not on the approved list, have a pre-determined consequence; if he or she asks if a site can be added to the approved list, discuss why it is (or isn’t) a good fit. Miller also advocates a “training wheels” approach to device usage, which lets parents gauge a child’s readiness for a phone with certain capabilities—and lets kids learn and make mistakes from which they can grow.

Serve as a role model. While talking about online etiquette is important, seeing good habits put into practice is invaluable. To that end, the experts at Jackson Hole Classical Academy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, advise that parents need to model good behavior and set clear guidelines for children to follow. In addition, they caution that children need to be aware that everyone can see what they do online, and recommend talking to kids about what it means to present a public version of yourself on social media.

Discuss the differences between friends and followers. Haley Champion, the Lower School counselor at The Savannah Country Day School, stresses the importance of talking to your child about safety and connecting with people they know—not just trying to increase their number of followers. She also notes that children (and adults) can get caught up in the validation generated from receiving “likes” online, and offers this gentle reminder that social media users of all ages can benefit from: “There is more to us than our accounts, and our self-worth should be derived from the type of person we are in real life.” 

Teach kids to consider the source. In an age in which the phrase “fake news” seems to be uttered with increasing frequency, The Savannah Country Day School’s Miller encourages parents to teach older children how to identify real vs. fake or satirical news sources. She suggests making a family game out of scrolling through your newsfeed and guessing whether an article is fake, satire, or legitimate, then checking the articles for signs of legitimacy and awarding points for correct guesses.

Establish time limits, and how to talk about them. Being offline or inaccessible can make children feel like they’re missing out, but it’s important to have rules regarding access to devices. For her Lower School students, Champion sees value in setting boundaries and being firm with time limits from the beginning, without explaining the ins and outs. Meanwhile, Miller recommends coaching older children on how to talk to their peers about why they can’t answer the phone at certain times. “For example, you may encourage your child to say, ‘My mom is so strict. I can only use my phone from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.’” This allows them to save face, assure their peers that they are not ignoring them, and gain empathy from friends, she explains.

Know what your child’s school allows and offers. Different schools have different policies and programs regarding phone usage, and while it’s obviously important to understand the rules and restrictions, it’s also exciting to discover how schools are teaching children about the digital landscape and setting them up for success. For example, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-based Casady School’s Upper Division students sometimes use their phones for Physics projects or to record a class to enhance their notes. In addition, the school has students who administer and populate several of the school’s social media accounts (students who post on behalf of the school or a sports team must participate in a training session on how to best represent the school online), and Casady has invited speakers to campus to talk to students and parents about digital citizenship and social media.

TSG Tip 197 from Jackson Hole Classical Academy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; The Savannah Country Day School in Savannah, Georgia; and Casady School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.