We raise our kids to be polite and respectful in person so why wouldn't we stress those same values in the online environment? A digital citizenship contract will help spell out your expectations of appropriate online behavior and send a clear message about the seriousness of your child's safety and online reputation.
Involve the kids in the process of outlining the contract to start a dialogue about issues that can come up. Here's a checklist of points to cover in your contract:
Treat others with dignity and respect. In other words, treat people the same way you wish to be treated. Unacceptable behavior includes:
- Posting/texting cruel remarks
- Using profanity
- Impersonating others
Think before your post. “Teenagers are all about instant gratification. They aren't necessarily thinking ‘If I do this, how is it going to affect the other person? How's this going to affect my life in the future?’” says Sarah Manriquez, a licensed clinical social worker. Remind kids to ask themselves questions like:
- Would I want Mom or Dad to see this?
- How would I feel about Grandma seeing this?
- Would I be embarrassed if everyone in school saw it?
Show empathy. Explain that when they forward or share photos/texts/video that are harmful to a peer, they inadvertently condone cyberbullying. Also, steer clear of mean-spirited chat rooms where anonymous members dish up snarky, cruel comments for entertainment.
Ask permission. Ask before logging into someone’s personal device; then log off the device when finished. Tell your child that she needs to talk to you before downloading an app.
Demonstrate personal accountability. Errors of judgment happen and kids are still learning. Immediately address a situation together, whether the child needs to deliver an apology or remove a comment or photo.
Don't talk to strangers. Some free texting and gaming apps permit members to connect with other members even if they aren't “friends.” Emphasize that exchanging text messages with someone they don’t know is the same as talking with a stranger. Often kids don't view texting and talking in the same light.
Guard personal information. Avoid posting personal information in public forums. Never share the following:
- Email address (don’t use your email as a username)
- Home address
- Social security number
- School name
- Birthday with year
- Photos with geotags (switch off the camera's location services under privacy settings.)
Assume everything posted is public. Texts, images and posts can be saved and shared. Check the news, TV shows and other media for examples that can lead to conversations and empathy-building opportunities. Kids are generally more open to discussing mistakes made by people outside of their immediate circle.
Keep your cool. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, one in three students experiences cyberbullying. Tell your kids to let you or another trusted adult know if someone bullies them. Reacting or retaliating generally adds fuel to the fire. If bullying continues, your child can ask the person to stop; report the behavior to the content provider; and/or block the individual. Preserve any evidence and contact law enforcement if your child feels scared or threatened.
Check out www.Thatsnotcool.com, a site geared for kids and teens featuring scenarios and text responses to help kids manage cyberbullying, dating violence and awkward peer situations like password requests and gossip.
Establish boundaries. Declare certain times of the day or areas of the house or car as no-phone/no-device zones. At the end of the day, power down and store electronic devices in a central location of your home.
Disconnecting periodically allows for more opportunities to connect as a family, engage in creative pursuits, get adequate sleep and complete homework and chores. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 72 percent of kids ages 6–17 have electronic devices in their rooms. Blame the blue light or incoming message alerts, but kids sleep less if electronic devices are left on, losing up to one hour of sleep a night.
Stress that privacy is earned. Because you are ultimately responsible for your child's behavior whether online or off, have access to all passwords, check her phone and visit the apps/social media networks she frequents regularly.
Pledge not to text and drive. If your child is driving age, include a pledge on your contract promising that she will not text and drive. Consider watching the 30-minute documentary by Werner Herzog together called “From One Second to the Next” on YouTube.
Clearly state consequences. Consequences could include loss of devices, screen time (except for required school work) and driving privileges.
Sign here. After your child signs the commitment, hang it up near your computer or on the refrigerator as a family reminder. Review and adjust as needed.
Freelance writer Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two technology junkies.
Find inspiration from Janell Burley Hofmann, a mom whose letter to her son about his new iPhone went viral: