Teaching Your Kids How to Be Kind Online in a Digital Age

The story isn’t new. No doubt you’ve heard it before. But a recent installment in my community illustrates the point that we need more kindness in real life and online.

Here are the details. Local college football rivalry leads to a poor decision. One fan wears an unfortunate shirt depicting a former player from the opposing team with a less-than-tactful caption. Then he posts a pic of himself wearing the ill-advised shirt online. The photo gets shared, people get hurt, and the man at the center of the controversy loses his job, receives threats against himself and his family, and ends up paying a large sum of money in retribution.

Unfortunately, even though he owned his mistake, expressed regret, and tried to make amends, his careless act initiated a series of unintended consequences that cost him dearly.

All because he chose to be unkind in person and online.

You might be surprised to learn that, even though he doesn’t root for my team, I feel somewhat bad for this man. Yes, he was unkind. And yes, like all of us, he must account for his unkindness to another. But the response he got online was brutal too. Fans who should have been gracious responded to his unkindness in kind. Rather than learning from his lack of judgment, many turned around and hurled unkindness right back.

We can and must do better. We must teach our kids to find healthy ways to use technology and how to be kind online.

Why Kindness Matters

We need to help our children understand that kindness matters. Rather than believing that Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest promotes selfishness and brutality, we need to embrace the idea that we thrive best when we are kind to one another.  Karyn Hall Ph.D. explains: “Darwin, who studied human evolution, actually didn’t see mankind as being biologically competitive and self-interested. Darwin believed that we are a profoundly social and caring species. He argued that sympathy and caring for others is instinctual (DiSalvo, Scientific American, 2017).”

In other words, we are naturally inclined to be kind.

In fact, researchers have found that kindness in relationships leads to security, happiness, and overall well-being. Those who receive and witness kindness are more likely to treat others with kindness. Further, kindness is contagious. The more someone practices kindness, the more kindness they receive. The effect spirals upward, building and strengthening relationships between individuals.  

Kindness can also counter the negative impacts of loneliness and social isolation. If your child notices someone who lacks the ability to connect deeply with others or feels overwhelmed, isolated, or insecure, encourage them to show that person extra kindness. Conversely, if your children struggle with these feelings themselves, encourage them to extend kindness to someone else. They will reap the benefits of that kindness personally.

Especially in our digital world, there has never been a greater need to be nice online.

How to Be Kind Online

If you’re looking for ways to teach your children how to be kind online, here are some ideas to get you started.

Send Kind Texts

A little goes a long way when it comes to being kind online. Extend a text challenge to your children. If they have cell phones (check out Troomi Wireless for some safe, kid-friendly options), encourage them to reach out to friends, family members, or new acquaintances with friendly gestures of kindness. A simple “Thinking about you” or “Have a great day” can go a long way to brightening someone’s day.

Leave Positive Comments

Teach your kids to resist wading into the quagmire of negativity that brews in the comment sections of sites online. Rather, encourage them to only leave kind, positive responses to the stories they read, the social media posts they encounter, and the message boards they frequent online. Give them some practice statements like, “I really liked what you said about ….” or “I agree with your idea that….” Even if your kids find it necessary to disagree online, help them learn how to respond kindly. Teach the value of civility in disagreement.

Share Goodness Online

Help your kids consider social media platforms and other online venues as opportunities to share kindness through uplifting content. For all the unkind things that are voiced on social media, encourage them to post positive messages that lift others. Each time someone takes a minute to watch an uplifting message, they will feel the kind intent with which it was shared.

Be Willing to Say I’m Sorry

Your kids are more aware than ever that communicating with tech is nuanced at best and a minefield at worst. Sometimes, digital words don’t come across as intended. In those instances, coach your kid to be willing to say “I’m sorry quickly” and sincerely when they unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings online. While much of our interaction, even with close friends and family members is done electronically, sometimes face-to-face apologies say it best. Help your kids know that kindness is paramount when it comes to mending fences they have damaged or broken down.

Stand Up to Cyberbullying

Bullying of any kind should be summarily stamped out. But cyberbullying is especially dangerous and hurtful because it’s often done in private. Help your children understand that if they, at any time, witness cyberbullying—whether through texts, social media posts, comments, or other means—they should tell a trusted adult so it can be stopped. If you wonder if your children are engaging in cyberbullying, check their phones and have open communication with them. You are their parents and should teach them to use their phones responsibly and kindly. And if you think your children might be bullied online, ask them and follow up.

Find Ways to Be Kind in Real Life

Even though it’s important to be kind online, you can also teach your kids to use technology to find ways to be kind in the real world. Serving others is a great way to show kindness. With easy and convenient websites like Volunteer.gov, JustServe.org, and others, you can help your children discover ways to be kind to others in your communities or across the globe.

Avoid the Drama—Be Kind Online

The story of one football fan’s bad choice in game attire has broader application. A jersey supporting his own team might not have received much attention. But in hindsight, that may have been the preferred outcome. It certainly would have been less dramatic. For us and for our kids, the lesson is clear: It’s always a good idea to be kind in real life and be kind online.