With a surge in remote learning attributed to the 2020 national pandemic, digital exposure and device usage in and outside of school has become unavoidable for children of all ages. Prior to COVID-19 and over the last decade alone, we have seen an influx of Chromebooks and tablets in US classrooms with a push for children to “learn tech!” While the need to have some tech skills in your tool belt is quite obvious in a socially distant society where family gatherings have become Zoom calls, digital etiquette and citizenship skills are equally important. Moreover, as children are handed iPads, tablets and other types of digital devices, parents must understand that kids are not equipped with the necessary knowledge or awareness to navigate their own online activity and privacy unless it is taught to them. As it is normal for today’s children to learn and play online, protecting their personal information and digital footprint through education, protocols, and adult supervision must become normative as well.
Diving into The Digital World with Children
The current generation of children are born into a digital world with an immediate digital footprint and identity. One that was probably first captured by you, their parent, with photographs posted to Facebook sharing your new bundle of joy and with more (embarrassing) photos to come that they may find regrettable and beg you to take down. By the time they head off to elementary school, so many children have been granted access to devices that will allow them to start rebranding their own digital identity and create a digital footprint on their own terms. Unfortunately, many parents are not aware that online identity formation is happening when kids learn how to post, chat and engage with peers without any guidance or supervision at times. For this reason, parental involvement and adult supervision with children is crucial towards building character and a positive identity in the offline and online world. Digital photos, selfies, and negative posts created online during childhood can hinder identity transitions into adolescence and into adulthood if they are unable to be deleted or removed online. One of my favorite apps for parents is Google’s Family Link and it manages all apps on your child’s devices, monitors usage and messaging. Although we may not feel as digitally savvy as our children - and I know from experience having an eleven-year-old daughter - we have to join hands to help them navigate the digital world. Our children must be able to identify the benefits of creating a positive identity online that is safeguarded and protected. But most importantly, our children must also understand the consequences that a negative digital identity and footprint can have when they manifest in their physical world and reality permanently.
Teaching theConsequences of Negative Online Interactions
As parents, it is important for us to teach positivity in online interactions and it is important for children to understand that what they post online to others can alter their real world too. For instance, in my home state of North Carolina, there were several documented accounts of in-school violence linked to cyberbullying primarily among middle grade students. In Cumberland County, a website created by an anonymous student with recordings of school fights at Westover Middle School disrupted the school environment and made headlines in May 2019. Two months earlier, the death of a thirteen-year-old at Orange County Middle School was also linked to cyberbullying. While these situations are tough to share and discuss, the harsh reality is that they are true and caused when children are un aware of the consequences of their online interactions. One of the most frequent forms of cyberbullying is “flaming.” Flaming involves the infliction of emotional harm on other children through insults, taunts and name calling (Dulovics & Kamenská, 2017). While the ramifications of cyberbullying are not often taught in school, children can be arrested and face criminal charges. In some states, likeNorth Carolina, if a minor under the age of 18 is found guilty of cyberbullying, they can be charged with a Class 2 Misdemeanor. Therefore, parents must not only engage in dialogue with their children, but also actively engage with their children online via social media. I strongly believe that every parent should be a friend or follower of any social media account that their child actively uses. Discussing the consequences of cyberbullying and negative online interactions is extremely important not only for your child, but also for the safety of someone else’s.
Encouraging A Positive Brand Online
So how can you encourage a positive digital footprint with your child? —You can start by teaching them to know and promote their online brand! Sit down with your child and ask them what comes to mind when they hear the word “brand?” Allow them to share their own thoughts or definition of what they think the term “brand” means. They may share corporation names, products or even commercial jingles, you might even hear, “I have no idea.” Either response is fine. Explain to your child that a brand is a reputation or impression that is created with a product, place, or person. Ask them what their favorite restaurant is along with their reputation. Affirm to your child that their response is an example of a brand and with that particular restaurant, it was based upon their experience. Now, help your child understand that people have brands too. Ask them to share their favorite celebrity (YouTuber, artist, etc.) and describe them with three words. Have them consider why they are able to describe them if they have never met the celebrity in person. Show them why the brand of their favorite celebrity was based on their impression from the media. These same impressions are made by others about us through what we share and post on social media. A great exercise to do with your child that evaluates their social media brand is to write down three positive character traits about themselves. Have your child look at their online accounts, posts, and photos and evaluate whether their online brand aligns with the three positive character traits they shared. Inform your child that jobs and colleges may review the social media pages of their applicants and that a negative social media brand may prevent them from obtaining future opportunities.
Tips for Helping Children Manage Their Digital Footprint
1) Schedule A Profile Check Up and Clean Up Day
Sit down with your child to go over their online profiles. Review their profile name, photos, and posts. Ask them to imagine being the CEO of a major company - would they hire someone that had an identical profile as theirs? Encourage your child to delete any negative comments, posts or photos that do not align with the positive character traits they possess on their pages. Repeat this process periodically.
2) Collaborate on Clear Goals and The Consequences of a Negative Digital Footprint
After you and your child have reviewed their profile, have them write out two goals for their future. It could be that they might want to go to college or have a certain career later on. Let your child write these two goals on a Post-It Note or piece of paper, then tape it on the back of their device. Discuss with them why negative online engagement and what they post may hinder their goals and future opportunities. Encourage them to continuously reflect on the goals attached to their device as they interact online and navigate new experiences.
Dulovics, M., &Kamenská, J. (2017). Analysis of cyber-bullying forms by aggressors in elementary and secondary schools. The New Educational Review,49(3), 126-137.
Wilson, S. (2019). Bullying: The effects in relationto third-grade elementary students. California State University, Monterey Bay. https://digitalcommons.csumb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1440&context=caps_thes_all