What have we taught our children about the lasting effects of their digital decisions?

by Rebekah Hinkle

With each new school year comes the opportunity for families to return to steady routines and enjoy what always feels like a fresh start together as a family.

We  break out crisp, new clothes, label the brand-new school supplies, and fill up fresh, clean backpacks.  We reestablish reasonable bedtimes, set expectations for evening homework routines, and vow to eat dinner together more often.

In this digital age, why not also let the Back-to School season be our yearly opportunity to reflect upon and revise our family expectations for responsible digital citizenship?

Demonstrating responsible digital citizenship involves using technology in a way that is 1)considerate of others, 2)mindful of our present and future selves, and 3)beneficial to our local and global community. Discussing these concepts with our children may prove to be one of the most important conversations we can have.


Do our children understand that kindness matters just as much online as it does in person?

Anyone who has spent any time online knows that the illusion of anonymity can tempt users to downright meanness.  Champions of kindness make a positive impact, but our children need our guidance and encouragement to know how to be a voice of compassion.

As school resumes in August, any in-person experience can make its way to social media, increasing the opportunity for continued commentary and public sharing.  Learning to solve problems in person rather than online is a crucial life skill that will develop according to the modeling and coaching our children receive.

Our coaching and modeling can also empower our children to combat cyber bullying by speaking with truth and compassion online. Too much pain and too many tragedies have resulted from online cruelty.  Do our children know how to stand up for kindness and how to respond to or report bullying?

Discussion starters for your family:
•    What are the drawbacks of complaining about a person or experience on social media?

•    How would it make you feel if someone made fun of you online?

•    If you saw a friend making rude comments about someone on social media, what would you do?


Have we taught our children how our digital behavior can affect us now and far into the future?

Coaches, college admissions offices, coworkers, and employers all have some level of access to our online presence, and while using privacy settings is wise, we can no longer believe that anything online is truly private.  Our children need our help to understand that each time we share we are writing a public story about who we are. Do our families and our children have a clear vision for what we want to communicate?

Today’s employers research prospective candidates online, and the internet has a long memory. Though a 16-year-old may learn and grow into a wise adult with mature judgment, photos and comments posted now will still be accessible a decade down the road.  Our children need to develop a forward-thinking personal filter for each post they make.

Underestimating our children’s ability to navigate these realities responsibility could rob them of the chance to positively impact their own future.  What have we taught our children about the lasting effects of their digital decisions?

Discussion starters for your family:

•    Have you ever posted something you wish you could take back?  Why?

•    How do you decide what to post?

•    What qualities do you hope your college or future employer will see in you?


Do we model for our children all the good that can be achieved online and through social media?

While there are inherent risks to participating in the digital community, there are also countless ways that technology is used to bring about good; these benefits are what make responsible online behavior worth the extra effort.

Good is happening online every day. Recently a gentleman in France used social media to quickly connect with a translator on another continent to assist a Chinese tourist having a health emergency. Non-profit organizations reguarly use the internet to connect those in need with those who serve and give. Being knowledgeable and wise about our participation in the global online community allows to  positively contribute in ways that simply weren’t possible even ten years ago.

Even many online learning games now incorporate a system by which students can choose to use points earned to donate food or money to children around the world. Last year students using Think Through Math donated math game points they earned to raise money for victims of the earthquakes in Nepal and for the community of Van, Texas, which had been heavily damaged by a tornado.

Students around the world benefit from the communication made possible by the internet.  They connect with other classes and even take virtual field trips through online programs and mobile apps. Students even benefit from their teachers’ use of technology to learn and share ideas with other teachers around the globe.

Such opportunities to use our online presence to positively affect our world make it more valuable than ever to talk to our children about responsible digital citizenship.
Discussion starters for your family:

•    Do you know anyone who does good for others? Why do they do it?

•    What are some positive ways members of our family could use the internet to help others?

•    Who do you most wish you could help?  Can we figure that out together?

A family that takes time to discuss these expectations can then share with their children why certain safeguards will be put into place to aid them in their decision-making. Programs and apps exist that can do each of the following and much more:

•    Prevent texting and driving

•    Record and report all text messages and photos a phone receives

•    Block inappropriate websites

•    Share phone location

•    Limit usage

•    Limit purchases

It is important to remember that while using technology safeguards and filters to minimize our risks is helpful, until we as families discuss our standards and expectations together, any online solution will only be a temporary band-aid until it fails.

Ultimately, our children will have to make difficult decisions, and through intentional family discussions we can equip them to do so even when the safeguards fall short.