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Making Caring Common: Teach Teenagers Digital Empathy

School’s out, and teenagers are filling the daily void by clocking in overtime on their favorite social media sites. Now is an excellent time for you to talk with them about appropriate social media conduct. The concept “think before you post” is lost on some kids, and can result in hurt, pain, and embarrassment.

One way to avoid these negative situations on social media is to teach our teenagers to care for others.

But we have a challenge. Harvard’s Making Caring Common project recently disclosed that caring is not foremost in the minds of most teens. A survey of 10,000 middle and high school students from 33 diverse schools across the country revealed personal success (like achievement and happiness) trumps concern for others. For our teens who spend many hours interacting online, this spells trouble.

When kids fail to consider the impact of their actions on others—whether posting a photo that might embarrass a friend, purposefully excluding a classmate, or posting nasty comments outright – there can be hurtful consequences.

And many of us who feel concerned about this lack of sensitivity may discover that we are at a disadvantage. We can’t relate to our kids’ social lives playing out in the digital world. Therefore, we may overlook the need to teach our kids that caring, kindness, and respect extends beyond face-to-face interactions. Yes, even online – or, especially online.

Caring needs to become a priority.

According to the study, most parents say raising caring children is a top priority. But we’re not sending that message to our kids.

80% of the youth surveyed by Making Caring Common said that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. Ouch! Our message needs to be much clearer.

2 Ways to Spread the Message About Caring for Others:

Making Caring Common offers two strategies to help teenagers develop habits of caring for others in their day-to-day interactions.

1. Zoom out

One suggestion is to help kids expand their circle of concern beyond their close group of friends. In other words, help your teen learn to “zoom out” and consider how their words and actions make others feel—especially online. “Will posting this picture embarrass my friend?” “If I don’t invite Sam to my party, and she sees the event on Facebook, will she feel left out?” “I really want to brag about making the team, but a lot of kids didn’t—will their feelings be hurt?”

2. Walk the walk

One easy step for parents is to be a good role model. Don’t just talk the talk—show kids what it means to be a caring person. Practice being honest and fair, and demonstrate how you want them to engage with others. Show them that being a caring individual (even when there is no reward) is simply the right way to be.

Teens today face unique situations online that we didn’t have to deal with in our youth. It’s important to listen to them and to try to understand things from their perspective. You don’t need to use Snapchat or post articles about caring to your kid’s Facebook wall. Instead, talk with them regularly about caring. Continue to guide them down the right path, and then give them space to be their own person.

Sue Scheff is the founder of Parents Universal Resource Experts and author of Wit’s End! Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen (HCI) and Google Bomb (HCI). She’s also a regular contributor for Huffington Post, Dr. Greene, GalTime, Parenting Today’s Kids, and more. 

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