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Parent and child practicing online safetyOnline safety and digital citizenship skills, just like in-person safety skills, aren’t enough on their own to protect kids from harm. Parental control settings and tools for blocking or monitoring can add useful safeguards – but they aren’t enough to keep kids safe, either. Technology isn’t perfect, and young people with a strong drive to do something online are often motivated and skilled enough to find ways around the barriers their adults put in place.

Open communication with caring, trusted adults plays a crucial role in young people’s emotional and physical safety everywhere – including in games, social media, and all other online spaces. Even teens who are digital natives are safer online when they have strong relationships with trusted adults who care about their emotional and physical safety everywhere – online and offline.

The good news is that ALL adults can take steps to support kids’ online safety and digital citizenship, starting from early childhood – even if kids aren’t online yet, even if the adults themselves are not digital natives or don’t enjoy online gaming or social media, and even if they connect with young people only in person or through distance learning, not in games or social media.

Every caring adult, including those who are never online, can take these seven steps to help prepare young people in their lives for a future of online safety and good digital citizenship – because even as technology changes, these concepts are likely to stay the same! (Additional digital citizenship and cyberbullying prevention resources at the end).

1. Talk about ‘good citizenship’ regularly

What does it mean to you to be a ‘good citizen’ –online or in person? Does it mean that you act respectfully? That you contribute to a greater good? That you support safety for yourself and others?

What does good citizenship mean in a preschool – versus in a high school or office? Or in a video game? What are the differences?

Do you want to have a reputation for being a good citizen? Why or why not? How can we each use our own power right now to be good citizens in places we go – online or in person?

How does ‘good citizenship’ show up in the books you read, the behavior you see in public, and the shows you watch together with youth?

How does ‘good citizenship’ show up in subjects or interests you share with young people – such as in sports, world history, politics, activism, literature, business, health care, science, or music?

Encouraging youth in ongoing, age-appropriate conversation about ‘good citizenship’ helps them build skills that can help them be and act more safely in all spaces, online and offline.

2. Talk often about values and behavior – and how they’re connected

Kidpower doesn’t teach ‘values’ – although our entire international team clearly values physical and emotional safety for all, and we communicate a shared commitment to putting safety first. Kidpower teaches skills.

It’s the job of parents, teachers, and other caregivers to help kids apply those skills over time, online and offline, in ways that are consistent with the values of their own families, schools, teams, faith communities, and groups. Doing this regularly – and including age-appropriate, relevant examples of online behavior – helps kids learn to assess their own choices and how they might reflect their values in all kinds of spaces.

Depending on their role in kids’ lives, adults have different opportunities to discuss values in powerful and appropriate ways. For example, in some schools, it may be against the boundary rules for teachers to emphasize certain religious values. In others, such as schools directly connected with faith groups, discussing religious values might not be simply inside the boundaries – it might even be part of the job. At the same time, teachers in each of these schools can make it clear – in regular, ongoing ways – that they value “caring”, or that “stealing” is against their values.

How do values show up in subjects or interests you share with kids – such as in sports, world history, politics, activism, literature, business, health care, science, or music?

In ways that are appropriate for your own relationship with young people, talk regularly about how you each think people should and should not treat others. For each item, whether they are suggested as “DOs” or “DON’Ts”, you can talk together about how that value could be applied online, too.

Maybe one person says, “We DON’T take other people’s things.” This opens the door to talking about concepts like copyright and plagiarism, which show up in real-world speeches as well as in online documents. No matter where they happen, these behaviors are ways of taking other people’s things without permission.

Maybe another says, “We DO respect people’s privacy (or stuff, or spaces).” So, in general, is it okay to go into someone’s home or car without being invited? Is it okay for us to go into another person’s room and read their diary? If a friend says, “I know my sister’s password. We can log into her account…” – is that any different? Why or why not?

Include the idea that safety is an exception. A paramedic might go into a home without getting permission first – why? For safety! Many adults have agreements with kids that the adults may log in to any of their online accounts and review everything in it without checking with the child. This is an important part of helping kids be safe online.

3. Teach kids that online tools magnify and accelerate communication.

People of any age deserve to know that digital technology has the power to carry our words, images, videos, and other actions to more people – really fast. This means that ‘taking it back’ is much harder online.

Thanks to technology, kindness and generosity can be magnified and carried farther and faster than ever. In the same way, cruel, offensive behavior can now be magnified and carried much farther and faster, too.

Model and practice using Calm Down Power and Think First Power before speaking or acting, especially when we are feeling upset, to prevent problems from growing bigger – in online as well as physical places.

Even adults who are not online themselves have the power to teach kids about online magnification and acceleration of communication – and to teach strategies that will help kids make wise choices. This helps prepare young people to take charge of their online safety and reputation as well as to act as good digital citizens in a future when technology’s power to magnify and accelerate is likely to grow, not shrink.

Day 4. Teach kids that online spaces are NOT private

Posting, sending, tweeting, recording, texting, messaging, and every other method on the ever-growing list of ways to communicate online ALL create digital footprints. Digital footprints are markers or evidence of use of the Internet. These markers can include when and where we participated and what we did or shared.

Even if we use tools designed for ‘secret’ or ‘private’ communication, we still leave digital footprints. Other people – including parents and other relatives, law enforcement, teachers, peers, and employers – may learn, see, or hear what we did, said, or shared, now or years from now.

People are more prepared to make wise choices online if they assume that everyone they know will see or hear their behavior or their communication right away. If you would lose any sleep because everyone saw what you did or shared, then do all you can not to give it a digital footprint.

Safety can be an exception. Adults responsible for the safety of a child may need to enter a child’s account because the adult is responsible for the child’s safety – even if this makes a child feel angry.

Another safety exception might include using technology to get help with a safety problem. Many young people have found potentially life-saving counseling and other mental health support from online resources not available in their offline lives, with the COVID-19 pandemic isolating even more people of all ages in physical spaces where online options may have become not just the safest but perhaps even the only pathway for reaching out and getting help.

In some emotional and physical safety situations, getting help through an online avenue might be the safest – or only – option available. It still includes a risk, so coaching kids throughout childhood in skills for identifying “Where Is Safety?”, how to persist, and how to assess resources and service providers will help them make safer, more informed choices.

5. Teach that good digital citizenship includes respecting others’ privacy

Teach kids that digital citizenship and online safety includes respecting the privacy of others, even though we understand that others might not respect our own privacy.

Brainstorm examples of respecting privacy in the real world, such as:

  • we don’t enter people’s homes or cars without their permission
  • we don’t read people’s journals without their permission
  • we don’t gossip, meaning we don’t talk about people in ways that are hurtful or that share private information or stories without their permission.

Consider similar examples of respecting privacy in online spaces, such as:

  • we don’t log into someone else’s account without their permission
  • we don’t read someone else’s private messages without their permission
  • we don’t share stories, pictures, or recordings of others without their permission

Revisit the fact that safety is an exception. When kids share information with adults because they are worried or uncomfortable or because they believe there is a safety problem, they are telling to be safe. This is NOT ‘tattling’, ‘snitching’, or ‘gossiping’. Families often have agreements that kids’ online accounts are NOT private and that the adults might log in and review kids’ communication at any time. This is important in order to help kids be safe online.

6. Teach kids that if they experience cyberbullying or in-person bullying, it’s not their fault and they deserve to be safe.

Even young kids know that sometimes people can be difficult, such as by pushing or by throwing sand. They also know that people can be very kind and generous.

The full range of behavior happens online, too. Griefing, trolling, and catfishing are terms that usually apply to specific cyberbullying behavior, but the behaviors themselves are simply different forms of bullying, harassment, coercion, and intimidation that are similar to hurtful, unsafe behavior familiar to all adults.

  • Be Aware: Notice other people’s words and actions. Notice if you are feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.
  • Take Charge: Countless possible actions can be ways of taking charge, including signing off, logging out, setting boundaries, joining a new match, or blocking users. It also includes saving evidence of hurtful behavior, such as by taking screenshots or printing.
  • Get Help:If you experience bullying, harassment, or abuse online or offline, it is not your fault, and you deserve to be safe. Tell and keep telling adults until you get help. Even when problems are happening in a game, app, or platform that has a way to report users, or in a multiplayer game with a gamemaster who’s expected to uphold boundaries, getting help with online problems always means talking to an adult you know and trust in the real world. Until online ways of getting help are much more reliable and responsive, it’s safest to turn to real-world connections for help with online problems.

7. Make a Kidpower Digital Citizenship and Safety Agreement

The Kidpower Digital Citizenship and Safety Agreement template is designed to support teachers, parents, and other adult leaders in creating their own agreement with young people.

While you can find other digital citizenship agreement forms online, ours is uniquely designed so you can:

  • adapt it for different ages and life situations, even within a single family;
  • use it as a conversation starter to support positive communication between adults and kids;
  • set boundaries for online safety and digital citizenship in ways that are positive, not punitive;
  • reinforce the message that we put safety first, rather than putting rules first.

For example, you’ll notice the Kidpower template does not include an agreement that a young person will answer their adult’s call ‘no matter what’. This is a line-item that many include in agreements – before they realize that that they actually do not want their young person answering a call if it’s not safe to talk on the phone where they are at that moment.

The agreement you create starting from our template might end up being shorter or longer. It might include more details about boundaries about passwords, gamertags, usernames, settings, or specific apps. Some agreements, especially with younger kids, include drawings and illustrations. Add anything that makes your agreement fit for your situation. The process of making the agreement together is what matters.

Kids are safer, online and off, when the caring adults in their lives stay involved and pay attention to their interests, activities, and overall wellbeing. Too often, adults who are not digital natives like the young people in their lives, or who do not have a similar interest in online experiences, overlook the powerful role they can play to support kids’ online safety and digital citizenship. We encourage all adults to see themselves as powerful, skilled safety leaders who can equip kids with skills to be safe online and offline by taking these steps – and by reaching out for help to get additional information about specific online or in-person challenges young people are facing. Contact us today with questions or to learn more about arranging an online workshop.

Additional resources:
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Published: October 14, 2016   |   Last Updated: November 11, 2020

Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, and is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader.