Talking to Your Family About Hate Speech Online

August 18, 2017

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, my friend expressed concern about how to explain the events to her six-year-old daughter. She mentioned that she was relieved that at such a young age she isn’t online and seeing the hate-filled content that occupies some parts of the web. She asked me where she should begin the conversation.

I spend my days focused on Internet safety and every day I see examples of the darkest aspects of the Internet, but also amazing stories of technology and social media being used for good. For all of the negative speech that takes place, there are many encouraging stories about teenagers building positive campaigns and creating amazing things. My advice for parents grappling with how to talk to their kids about hate speech online is to start with a conversation and use current events for a teachable moment.

Explain your family values, and the views that you as a family do not believe or do not tolerate.

Acknowledge that there are people who do not feel the same way as your family or even most people, and that those views are sometimes expressed online or at in-person gatherings and these hate-filled views may target people because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability. Let your child know that posts like this may seem more powerful than they actually are, and that most people do not feel this way. Reiterate that hate-filled posts go against your values.

Educate your child and help develop critical thinking skills, so they can distinguish between legitimate online sources and those that might be extremist views online. Share examples of sources you would find trustworthy and why. Remind them that to be a good digital citizen, they need to exercise their rights and responsibilities online just as they do offline, so critical thinking about content they come across is important.

Prepare your child so they know what to do if they come across upsetting material or speech. If your children are young, tell them if they see this type of content, to show it to you and talk about it. If they are older, ask them if they know how to use the tools available on social media. Inform them about options and steps to take if they see hate speech online.

Teach them how to mute or block those with extreme views, ignore the posts if they choose, or if they are bothered by things they are seeing targeting people or groups – make sure they know to come to you to talk about it and also take steps to report the abusive behavior to a social network. Make sure your child knows how to act responsibly online so that they do not share, like, or forward posts that target individuals or groups.

Focus on the positive aspects of what is online, including counter-speech. Show them how in difficult times, many people can also use the Internet as a platform for good, to join together to stop hate speech or unite around something positive. For example, a positive quote might go viral and could be inspiring for your teen. President Obama’s tweet quoting Nelson Mandela and talking about hate is now the most liked tweet in Twitter history and messages like that might be uplifting for your child to see. Showing them that there are many voices online who unify to stand up to hateful content can be a powerful lesson.

The most important lesson is to start the dialogue early so that your child has the skills to think critically about what they see, knows how to react if they come across hate speech, and feels empowered to take steps to spread a positive message. Ensure that your child knows to talk to you about what they might see and how it makes them feel so that together you can respond or reflect together. These conversations will enable your children to be better digital citizens and help get them take positive and responsible steps when they do encounter hate speech online.

Some helpful resources include:

Google – form for removing content

Facebook – information on reporting abusive content including hate speech

Instagram – community guidelines with information on hate speech and reporting

Microsoft – form for reporting hate speech

Twitter –hateful conduct policy and how to report abusive content

Yahoo! - community guidelines

You Tube – reporting hate speech

7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting

Written by

Jennifer Hanley

Jennifer Hanley is the Vice President of Legal and Policy for the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI). Jennifer directs FOSI’s government outreach and policy strategy. Jennifer helps FOSI build relationships with government officials as well as external partnerships and advises leading technology companies on best practices, policy developments, and emerging issues around online safety. Jennifer implements FOSI’s global projects and initiatives and manages the Washington, D.C. staff team. She also leads FOSI’s research work. Jennifer develops policy positions on Internet safety issues including online privacy, mobile safety, cyberbullying, sexting, controversial content, student data privacy, encouraging positive online content for kids, and federal and state legislation and regulations. Jennifer also represents FOSI on panels and in the press.

Jennifer is a magna cum laude graduate of the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, where she served as a Vice Chancellor on the CUA Moot Court Board and as the Vice President of the Communications Law Students Association. Jennifer held legal internships with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, EchoStar, and Comcast. Jennifer graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from the George Washington University where she studied Political Science.