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Good Behavior Online: How to Teach Your Teen Good Digital Citizenship

Kids have been bullying each other for decades. The old stereotype of a bully as some big, maladjusted hulk picking on a 90- pound weakling, however, simply isn’t accurate, says Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D., director of Embrace Civility. “As young people approach puberty, they attempt to predominate their peers. That means socially skilled, popular, athletic kids also engage in hurtful behavior to achieve social dominance.”

This kind of bullying behavior has ethological roots in animal behavior. “As animals approach the age of puberty, they engage in aggressive behavior to achieve social dominance,” says Willard. “There is a sorting out process where they size each other up and use aggression against those who are weaker, or against rivals for dominance. Humans have two capabilities which allow us to rise above animal behavior: empathy (the ability to perceive how others feel); and the ability to reflect upon our own actions and recognize how others perceive us.”

Technology, such as cellphones and computers, distances us from the person we are talking to and “interferes with our ability to perceive how our actions impact other people.” Even worse, observes Willard, this interference takes place “at a time when the human brain is also undergoing a complete restructuring, when hormones are surging, when impulse control is low, and risk-taking behavior is at a high point.”

Technology prevents adolescents from “using their human characteristics of empathy and reflection which should help us treat each other with kindness and compassion.”

Technology makes is easy for teens to post mean things, or ridicule classmates, or exclude each other from group texts, or engage in “bullying” behaviors online. “In the research I have done, kids themselves will admit,” says Willard, “that times when they recognize they have engaged in hurtful conduct online is in two situations: when I was angry, or when that person had been hurtful to me.” This is where teaching good digital citizenship comes in.

Digital Citizenship Skills:


Have a family rule for using social media or texting: do not post or press “Send” when you are angry. “Hands off the keyboard unless you are calm. Every kid needs to understand the very high likelihood that actions taken when they are angry or upset will backfire.”

Problem solving

Teach your child how to think through difficult situations for themselves. Encourage them to envision the impact that their post can have. This way, says Willard, you help to empower your child and help them to feel they have agency over their online interaction with their peers.

Here is a step-by-step approach for problem solving when something happens online to your teen that is upsetting or harmful. Teach your son or daughter to go through these steps before they respond to something upsetting online.

  1. Do I have an accurate understating of the situation?
  2. What are my goals here, and what outcome would I like to see?
  3. What strategies can I think of to proceed? Identify at least three different strategies.
  4. Think through my strategies: are they in keeping with my family’s values? What would my mom or dad think if they found out what I did?
  5. What are the possible consequences of the strategies I have identified?
  6. Do I have a trusted friend or adult that I can talk to about this situation?

By the time your child works through these steps in problem solving, says Willard, “they will be calm and can evaluate the situation without anger.” If the strategies your son or daughter applied aren’t successful, advises Willard, then it’s time to get help from a trusted adult.

If you learn that your teen has been involved in something inappropriate or has not engaged in good online behavior, parents should respond as follows.

Parents’ Role in Cultivating Digital Citizenship:


Helpful questions to ask them:

  1. Ask “Could you explain the situation to me?”
  2. Ask “What strategy did you follow? What results are you looking for? Have you acted in accord with our family’s values?”

Share concerns

  1. Ask “Could you explain the situation to me?”
  2. Ask “What strategy did you follow? What results are you looking for? Have you acted in accord with our family’s values?”
  3. If you don’t like the actions your son or daughter has taken, explain to them “You have made a mistake, and that I’m going to require you to remedy the harm.” Whether it’s harm to someone else, or whether the harm is that your teen has presented him or herself badly, in which case remedying the harm may mean taking down a post or photo.

Emphasize kindness

So how can parents help to prevent cyberbullying and encourage good digital citizenship for teens?

Encourage your teen to interact online with peers in a way that encourages kindness and compassion. “The power of being kind is a very effective means to reduce bullying,” says Willard. “Parents can ask their kids to reach out to someone outside their social group and be kind at least one time per day,” says Willard, “whether it’s a private message or a public post that is encouraging and positive.” At dinner, ask your teen “What did you do today to be kind?” “What did you do online today that you are proud of?” and “What did you see online today that you are grateful for or made you feel good?” These questions help to build empathy and promote the positive, which helps your teen to live a happier, more empowered life and to respond more effectively to stressful situations.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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