Good Digital Parenting
Blog | Jan. 9, 2014

Having Conversations on Commenting with Kids

Academic Technology Specialist, Georgetown Day School

As new mobile devices enter our lives, it’s easier and easier to say what we think, without much thinking about what we are saying. 

Our days, awhirl with digital reactions, feedback, and feelings, make it easy to share spontaneous responses everywhere we go on the web, leaving bits and pieces of ourselves that live on long after we tire of a site. Some people are naturally prepared to be cautious with all this information sharing, but most of us – children and adults – are not predisposed to consider carefully the effect of our interactions in an always-connected digital world where people feel free to write just about anything. 

Online writing can be spontaneous and fun – so my students often look surprised when I suggest that, no matter where they are writing online, they exercise forethought and care, considering tone, word choice, and even punctuation. While children and adolescents feel they know much about the online world, most are unaware how much their comments live on, and often they do not consider just how uncivil their remarks may seem. 

How can we improve the situation? 

Adults Can Do Some Homework and Learn More About the World of Commenting 

To understand more about the digital feedback concerns of respected media outlets check out a 2011 post, A 5-Minute Framework for Fostering Better Conversations in Comment Sections, on the journalism focused Poynter Institute blog. Written by NPR’s Matt Thompson the piece identifies many of the current problems with media commenting sections. A New York Times article, The Top Ten Reasons We Deleted Your Comment, is also helpful to read. 

Help Children Understand that All Online Writing Has an Audience and the Rules of Civility Always Apply 

Given the highly supervised lives of children today their online world feels like a freer place, a playground even, with less oversight and lots of opportunity to experiment with behavior and tone. A young writer may intend for a comment or response to be silly and read by just a few friends, but frequently it is forwarded or appears in unexpected places, interpreted differently, by different people. Civility is important – and because the online arena seems more cloistered than our face-t0-face lives, young users must work harder to understand that once they write and upload comments or participate in discussions, they do not control who will eventually read their content. 

In her blog post Teaching Civilized Discourse: 4 Online Lessons for Online Discussions, educator and blogger Susan Lucille Davis describes how students learn about online writing in her classroom. Sometimes, she writes, “… the ease of writing digitally … fools us into thinking we can just dash things off and still communicate effectively.” 

A range of information about writing for an audience also appears in this New York Times Learning Network article, 10 Ways to Promote Writing for an Authentic Audience, and it’s helpful reading for parents and teachers. The news story focuses on a student project so it will also be interesting for kids to read. 

Read Comment Policies with Children 

Together parents and children can read the updated and simplified comment policies at Boston.com, a news site that recently decided to moderate its response sections. Also check out the CNN commenting policy. The New York Times Learning Network posts a commenting FAQ for student users. Fourth graders at a school in Australia wrote guidelines and produced a video about their commenting guidelines. Use these resources to start a continuing family dialogue focusing the responsibilities of communicating online. 

Check Out Comment Sites and Rate the Responses With Your Child 

Take a few minutes to check comments on a site and rate some of the remarks on a one to five scale – comparing contributions that are carefully thought through to those that are uncivil or at least lack common sense. Using comment sections in publications that adults read will demonstrate just how much people of all ages need to learn about what happens when they leave their ideas and responses on the web. And don’t forget to look over comments on a social media site like Instagram or YouTube if your child uses them. 

Practice Writing Good Comments – Positive As Well As Critical 

After reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a radio program go the official website and check out some of the thoughts that people have already written. Authors love to receive well-thought-through responses from readers. Perhaps your and you child can leave a comment. All of us also need to practice writing about something that we do not like very much, thinking about how to phrase critical remarks constructively. Read How to Teach Commenting Skills at Mrs. Yollis' Class Wiki. Another good resource is Grammar Girl’s How to Write a Good Blog Comment. Older students may enjoy reading Blake Waddill’s Ten Commandments of Comment Etiquette

For children to become accomplished connected learners who use digital resources to increase their knowledge and understanding – and yes, have fun – we need to ensure that they know how to write and share ideas respectfully. Whether they write quick comments or craft more formal prose, digital-age children must develop the skills to respond thoughtfully to disagreements and opposing points of view. 

In today’s world we can all become more attuned to what we write and where and how we write it. 

Cover image courtesty of Flickr