Computer, pictures, camera

“How can I get my child to understand what she is doing online isn’t right? My teenager thinks I am over-reacting when I warn her to watch what she posts online. She says, 'Everyone is doing it. It’s not a big deal. No one really cares about stuff like this anymore because it’s everywhere online.' What should I do? Am I overreacting?”

This was a comment recently shared with me by a worried mom.

I don’t think she's over-reacting. In fact, I wouldn’t just warn children about online behavior. I would teach them that posting controversial comments or questionable pictures online isn’t right — even if the entire world is doing it.

We have to face the fact that we are living in both a “coded world” and in the “real world.” Both need our attention and parental guidance. We must teach children how to behave online. You can start by teaching them three key words to manage their online behavior.

  • Permanent: What we say and do online stays online. Even years later, when you least expect those thoughtless posts, controversial comments and questionable pictures to resurface, they can come back to haunt you in a very real way. Those pictures and comments could hinder personal and job opportunities, as well as relationships.
  • Pervasive: What we post goes everywhere! This is why the internet is sometimes called a “super highway.” It is able to get your information out to more place in seconds.
  • Public: The internet is a communal place. You are not just sending your friends personal comments or private thoughts. You are telling the world as soon as you push the “Enter” button. If you want to have a private conversation, don’t do it online.

Below are some tips to help parents teach their children how to behave online.

1. Seize the teachable online moments. I know this sounds like a cheesy, internet Carpe Diem ad, but there are wonderful teachable online moments all around us. If we stop and take the time to notice them, our children will benefit greatly from our consistent micro-teaching.

2. Give clear online expectations. It's important to give children clear expectations, rules and immediate consequences for their behavior — both online and off. The consequences should be more than just taking way the privilege to use the internet.

3. Pay attention to their real-life behaviors. Keep in mind that bad online behaviors actually start in real life. If your children act inconsiderate, rude and thoughtless in real life, they will likely act the same way online. Have children earn online access at home by showing consideration and kindness in their everyday lives.

4. Talk about your child's behavior and your concern. Avoid lecturing and nagging, and instead use open-ended and follow-up questions to get your child to think and process the outcomes of their actions. For example, ask your child if they would go out into the street, to school or stand up in church and yell controversial comments or show provocative pictures of themselves or others. Ask if they would expect some sort of negative reaction or consequence. Let them know the internet isn't any different than those public places.

5. Teach children about the proper online etiquette. Remember that not everything is worth sharing. Be polite — having manners is cool whether you are talking in person or online. Think before you post. If your gut is saying, “No, don’t do it,” then don’t post it. Remember there can be legal and ethical consequences to things you post online. Finally, you are what you post. People’s lasting impression of you is often based on what they see, hear or read about you. Post your most positive online self.


Bridget Barnes has more than 30 years of experience as a Health and Human Services professional. Bridget joined Boys Town's Family Services Research and Development department to assist with creating what is now the evidence-based Common Sense Parenting program.

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