I help people be kind online. I want to share with you how I went from being a mom, a writer, and a blogger to leading an international online kindness movement. But really, and most importantly, I want to tell you how my work and my involvement with social media affect my kids.
In the summer of 2014, my husband, Jason, and I celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary. I wrote a tidy article about it for The Huffington Post called, “12 Secrets Happily Married Women Know.” I included a photo from our wedding, sent it to my editor, and, to be honest with you, I didn’t think about it again for a few days. But when I did go to check how my article was being received, I learned firsthand why it is that we tell our writers to never read the comments.
The comments that were coming in weren’t about marriage, weddings, my article, or my writing. They were about my weight and how fat I looked in my wedding dress.
When I read those comments I was shocked and surprised, but mostly, I was hurt. I only showed them to my husband because I was also embarrassed and ashamed. I took a break from the online world, and once I did feel stronger about what had happened, I wrote a second article titled, “It Happened To Me, I Wrote An Article About Marriage, And All Anyone Noticed Is That I’m Fat.”
I said two things in this article. The first was that we shouldn’t talk about other people’s bodies and the second was that we should all be kinder to each other online. This article with these messages went viral, showing me that there is so very much kindness in this world. After how hard I was hit by those mean Internet comments, I really needed to see that goodness and I was grateful for it. [I put my whole story together in one place for you right here.]
After all of this happened, something interesting happened at our house.
My own daughter decided that she’d like to be online. Her friends were starting to use social sites, and she wanted in. I have to tell you this: in that moment, it didn’t matter how much goodness I had seen in the world, the thought of letting her be online, in a space where I had just been cyber bullied, scared me.
I realized that I had three choices:
- I could keep her way from social media forever and ever. (This was tempting.)
- I could let her be online and cross my fingers that everything would be okay. (This was also tempting.)
- Or I could use the opportunity to help her maneuver the online world. (This was, in fact, not at all tempting to me.)
But I did realize that I had a golden teachable moment for my kids at my, literal, fingertips. So I knew that while this was not necessarily what I wanted to do, it would be the most helpful and effective thing that I could do.
So I decided that my daughter and I would tackle learning how to use social media safely, wisely, and kindly together.
This is the exact process that the two of us went through when we got started:
- We sat down together and looked at accounts of kids who we knew.
- We opened conversations about what we both saw and noticed—the good and the bad.
- And we discussed and brainstormed what she would do if she was scrolling online and saw these things by herself as well as, if given the freedom to do so, what she would post and what she would not post.
We repeated this process over and over (and over) again and, sometimes, we still do this.
I committed to having these conversations with her because as tempting as saying, “no” to social media was, I very quickly saw that it’s not my job to keep kids away from social media and the online world. There are just so many benefits to it and I want my kids to reap them.
Some of the benefits of social media include:
- Creativity—Our artists and our dreamers have a place to showcase their art, photography, poetry, and word-smithing online.
- Connection—Social media is one of the places that kids are connecting today. Not allowing our kids to be online is akin to taking away their chances of friendship forming and solidifying.
- Voice—Social media is the great equalizer between extroverts and introverts. Everyone has a voice online.
So I understood that not only was it not realistic to keep her off line, it also wouldn’t have been helpful. So with saying “no” to social media off the (option) list, I was left with choosing between crossing my fingers and hoping that things went well for her, or diving into the teachable moments and being glad that if anyone got to be the first one to teach her about social media, I got to be the one to do it.
When I reframed it in this way, I realized just how lucky I was that it was my job to help teach her how to choose wisely where and how to be online.
The truth is that social media is a mix of good and bad and there is a lot to learn about it for both our kids and for ourselves. If we can give our kids the skills to practice choosing where to be and how to act online, we can loosen our worries and our rules. They will absolutely make mistakes, but with the benefit and the buffer of what we have taught them, they can learn from these mistakes and come back from them.
Incidentally, another benefit of approaching the topic of social media and kids in this way is that it keeps the lines of communication open and builds on our relationship with our kids. This is vital, so if they experience bullying like I did or they see something that isn’t quite right, they feel comfortable coming to talk to us. I created a list of the five resources that I use to kick start all of my conversations with kids about cyber bullying for you. You can get it right here.
Right here on Ask, Listen, Learn, there is a wonderful screen time resource that offers safe, fun entertainment and allows kids to relax and be online without doing the mental gymnastics that come with maneuvering in un-vetted online spaces.
My daughters and I tried the game Switchin Kitchen, which is a fun game that while focusing on showing healthy and unhealthy food choices, is also a relaxing and fun pastime. While I am a big fan of teachable moments, I also know all too well that we all need time to relax, especially our busy kids, and it’s nice to have a space that they can do so safely.
I love opportunities like these that give, not just kids a chance to practice being online, but that also give parents the opportunity to practice loosening the reins on online use.
Some types of sites that I love to let my kids spend their online time on include:
- Music sites so they can dance.
- Trivia sites so they can flex their brain muscles.
- Vetted games (like Switchin’ Kitchen) so they can relax.
- And science sites so they can explore.
It is sites like Ask, Listen, Learn that will always have a space in my mothering and advocacy heart because they not only give my kids fun online spaces to be, but they also make a purposeful choice to be safe spaces for kids.
It can’t be said enough times how important it is for our kids to see big sites and companies as well as their own parents and teachers making purposeful choices to create a safer, kinder internet for all of us. This is something that I call creating a Culture of Kindness.
So I started out this article by saying that the most important thing that I wanted to share with you is how my work in social media affects my kids. I asked my daughters this question, and here’s what they came up with: It means that we talk a lot about how to be online. This comment made me laugh! But I have to agree with them that this is true and since teaching our kids to be safe, wise, and kind online is such a high parenting priority right now, I am a-okay with using my parenting moments and words on this. (*Even if it is a lot!)
Galit Breen is the author of Kindness Wins, a simple no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online. Her bylines include TEDx; The Huffington Post; The Washington Post; and TIME. She tweets at @GalitBreen and shares her favorite online spaces to say “yes” to here.