When I talk with children in primary schools about how they can stay safe online, one of they key points I raise is the golden rule. Upon first preparing my talks with children aged from 5 to 12 years and planning to ask them what the golden rule is I have to admit, it didn’t occur to me that they wouldn’t know the answer! Having now spoken at many primary schools I’ve realised how wrong my initial presumption was.
So I figure it’s time for us all to get back to basics of digital citizenship; and here’s why.
The Golden Rule
The golden rule of life is to “treat others how you wish to be treated”, or “do unto others what you want them to do unto you”. It originated in religious texts literally thousands of years ago, and according to Wikipedia it has been accepted by nearly every religion around the world.
The Golden Rule is no less relevant now than it was when first stated, yet with so many other things to think about it is not communicated or considered anywhere near as much as it used to be. This is very unfortunate, but the good news is that every one of us can easily do our bit to turn that situation around, starting from right now.
The Golden Rule and Empathy
One of the reasons the golden rule is so important in today’s digital world is because it helps people develop empathy – the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. This in turns leads to more responsible behaviour online in terms of digital citizenship. Sadly, empathy is often lacking in both children and adults, and this is a contributing factor towards cyber bullying and other unpleasant behaviour we all see in both the physical and the digital world.
Some adults and most children simply don’t think about how their behaviour might negatively affect others. In some cases they may be aware they might offend but they don’t really care.
Drilling the golden rule into our children as far as their online world goes means asking them to think before they post or share something online. This is one of the keys to good digital citizenship. It involves asking themselves how their message, or their support for someone else’s message, might affect the person on the other end of it. How would they feel if they were on the receiving end? And if they wouldn’t want to be the recipient of the message themselves, they shouldn’t be sending or sharing it at all.
It’s perfectly natural for children to think about things from their own perspective. One of our roles as parents is to show them that there are two sides to every story and to every dispute. We want our children to consider other people’s feelings and points of view BEFORE they act in a way they may later regret.
The Golden Rule Online
One of the reasons the golden rule is so important to apply online is because what happens online is more visible and more permanent, and can affect a child’s future years later. Negative posts that may not be shared if the golden rule was taken into consideration can reflect badly on anyone, let alone children who don’t know any better. There’s also a good chance that more people will see a post online than will be present in the room during a face-to-face conversation.
All too often tweens and teens post mean messages and images online that are intended as jokes, but soon spiral out of control. Often those ‘jokes’ have a victim at the receiving end, and that victim seldom finds them amusing. The sender doesn’t think about treating others how they wish to be treated themselves; more often than not they simply don’t think too much at all.
The sad part is that children are very vulnerable and are usually not thick-skinned enough not to take these messages to heart. They believe that if someone has told them they’re ugly or that everyone hates them then it must be true. So follows the downward spiral of anxiety and depression.
Sometimes the children and also adults who send these messages don’t think the person they’re being nasty to will ever see the message. This comes from a lack of fully understanding how social media works, and how messages can spread to people that they didn’t think would ever see them EVEN IF they’re shared in private groups, no matter how small.
How You Can Make A Difference
I’m sure sometimes my children think I sound like a broken record – not that they would say that as they’re way too young to know what a record is! But by drilling the golden rule into them consistently and from a young age, I know that I’m helping them have empathy for others, and that they know how to treat others as well as how NOT to treat others.
It’s also very important as a parent to lead by example. You can say whatever you want to your children, but they will always learn far more by watching what you do than from the mere words that come out of your mouth.
We may not be able to change the world in a day, and certainly worrying about matters outside of our control is a waste of energy. But teaching our children the golden rule and how it applies online as well as offline is a big step you can easily take that may take both their face-to-face and online social skills to a whole new level. Not only will they appreciate what you’re teaching them at some point when they’re older, but their lives will be much happier in the meantime as how as they treat others will be reflected back at them.