There is one thing you can bet on about kids. They will make mistakes.

Maybe it’s their under-developed brains that can’t entirely weigh consequences until somewhere around their mid-20’s. Or maybe it’s just the very process of growing up. Kids try new things. They explore. Curiosity and desire rule their minds. This has and will always be true. What’s different now is that kids growing up in the Digital Age can, without much effort, make tremendously bad decisions that can haunt them for the rest of their lives. It’s up to us, as Digital Parents, to make sure that young people understand the public and permanent nature of the negative behaviors they chose to post online. Kids can be unaware about of the hurtful ways in which technology can be used against them or the legal consequences of their online actions.

You must teach your kids about the risks of their online behavior and to give them skills to protect themselves from lasting harm. Start talking to your kids about these risks as soon as they start to use technology or spend time with others that do. Let’s be clear, waiting to talk about technology until kids have their own email addresses, phones and social media profiles is waiting too long.

At Savvy Cyber Kids, we encourage you to start The Tech Talk with the youngest of children, teaching them about protecting their identity online and to treat strangers in their online worlds like strangers; keep The Tech Talk going into the teen years when sexual predators will try and connect with your child; and then expand The Tech Talk further as your child prepares to leave for college and will need to be able to moderate his or her own tech habits and use common sense when tech encourages your young person to be friendly with strangers (Hello, Uber, Ebay and Tinder). The idea here is to start The Tech Talk and never stop.

But, you know what will end that talk, that open dialogue you have with your child, where they can come to you for advice and direction. YOU. The moment you stop listening and react with anger, shame and disappointment may be the last time they ever willingly come to you for help. And they need you. You need them to need you. Because they cannot navigate the complexities that come with the connected life successfully without your guidance.

So, what happens when your child makes that mistake? As a parent, you should hold your children accountable for inappropriate decisions. But do so by using cyber ethics mistakes as an opportunity to model how difficult conversations can be an opportunity to learn, connect and grow.

Experts recommend that parents:

  • Sit down and talk regularly with your kids.
  • Pick a neutral space, like the kitchen, instead of a bedroom, so everyone is on equal footing.
  • Give everyone the same amount of time to speak.
  • Actively listen to your child.
  • Maintain eye contact during the discussion.
  • Say how you feel; don’t defend.
  • Use positive reinforcement to praise good behavior.
  • Create consequences for bad behavior.
  • Don’t personalize your child’s bad behavior.

When it comes to cyber ethics mistakes with sexual content, avoid at all costs, shaming your child. The Savvy Cyber Kids Parent’s Guide to Technology: Have You Talked To Your Kid About Hard-Care Pornography can help you have important conversations about online sexual content BEFORE mistakes are made. But if the cats out of the bag and you discovered your child sending or receiving inappropriate sexual content, start talking to your child and find out about the relationships that led to the communications. If your child, and you, feel as though it was consensual behavior, then you need to focus on a discussion about privacy (IT DOES NOT EXIST WHEN TECHNOLOGY IS INVOLVED) and consequences.

And if you feel that there was exploitation involved, you will need to take the conversation farther with the others involved, potentially also with parents, school administrators and law enforcement.

Tread carefully and support your child through this process. Shame and fear of legal consequences can have dire effects on a young person. In 2017, 16-year-old Corey Walgren, a straight-A student at Naperville North High School committed suicide after being summoned by school officials to their offices to ask about a video he made of himself having consensual sex with a classmate.

While it’s ok to be unhappy or uncomfortable about what your child has done, you need to put those feeling aside, even if that means taking time out to cool off. Resist the urge to shame your child, especially on social media. According to The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education teenage brains are motivated by pleasure-seeking, impulsivity, aggression and reward. Their brains simply don’t know how to delay gratification, so humiliating teenagers for wrongdoing doesn’t solve the root of the problem, which is developmental, not spiteful. Shaming or humiliating a young person is a breach of trust and accomplishes nothing more than alienating your child from you.

Taking this a step further, new studies reported by Scientific American, demonstrate that parenting defined by harsh punishments lends itself to anxious children who have a harder time adapting to adversity later in life. The study found that punitive parenting trains a child’s brain to overly emphasize mistakes. This could handicap a child with a fear of making future mistakes so strong that they become paralyzed from being curious and taking risks. While one could interpret this as a positive thing, a learned overt caution to making cyber ethic mistakes, the reality is that this fear can translate into anxiety and inaction in other aspects of the young person’s life. A mistake need not define your child—or your parenting. Rather, mistakes are opportunities to learn and to shape what follows—for the better.

This is where the power of making sure that there are open lines of communication between you and your child come in. Start talking to your child about navigating their online worlds safely as early as possible and continue talking—forever—as your child lives their life with technology.

Savvy Cyber Kids educates and empowers digital citizens, from parents and grandparents, to teachers and students. Sign up for our free resources to help you navigate today’s digital world with cyber ethics.
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