Student Online Safety This Summer: Digital Empathy from Mom and Dad

It starts with communication. You know, suggesting to parents that they talk with their children.

Bold? Yes. Cutting edge? Certainly. Completely obvious? Well, you’d think.

The number one issue young people face online–and it may even be truer during these summer months–is their parents are largely absent from their digital lives.

We’ve heard from hundreds of young people, and they constantly blow our minds with what they’re experiencing online. The tales are as varied as they themselves are. But the one universal truism is this–moms and dads are not paying attention to what their kids are doing on their phones, tablets, gaming consoles and computers.

It’s been our primary mission at Above The Fray from day one. Getting parents talking with their kids about their online lives is vital for their health and safety. It’s vital for everyone’s.

Parents have a responsibility to parent online… just like they do offline.

This is especially true for these summer months when young people have the most alone time. For many families, both parents work, meaning their sons and daughters are left home by themselves. When that happens, guess who’s babysitting. That’s right, digital devices.

Think about it. You remember summer: Playing outside with your friends, riding bikes, swimming and watching television. Sure, a lot of that is still happening, but now all those activities are being supplanted with screen time. Sad as it may be to accept, you know it’s true.

So where should parents start? How do they begin to break down the wall that they absently allowed to be built? How do they bridge the divide and talk with their children about what they’re seeing and doing online… and who they’re doing it with?

Our experience and research shows it starts with digital empathy. That’s a term we created to help explain to parents the difference between their digital life and that of their child. Parents must understand how differently they view social media, texting, etc., from their children.

If you’re over 20, you remember a time before these devices. You remember picking up a telephone–a piece of equipment that had just one function–and dialing a number. You remember being on the receiving end of those calls, when you had no idea who it might be calling you.

You remember a time before the Internet. A time before iPhones and PlayStations and Snapchat.

Children don’t. And therein lies the difference. They’re natives to this technology. We’re the foreigners.

For our children, the digital convergence has happened. They’re less able to distinguish the digital world from the physical. The words written on a screen mean the same to them as words said to their faces.

For us, as adults, we can disassociate. We can clearly see the line.

So, when parents begin talking with their kids about their social media accounts, their gaming accounts, their texting, etc., they have to look at it through their eyes, not ours. We must put ourselves in their shoes and realize that their phones are as much as part of them as their clothes. Maybe even more so.

So how do parents keep their kids safe online this summer?

The same way they do year-round. By talking with them every single day about what they’re experiencing online. And we do it with digital empathy. It’s the second most awkward conversation we’re going to have with our children, but it just may be the most important.

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Thomas Dodson is a father and Co-founder of Above The Fray. By day, he’s a social media and digital marketing consultant for Southwestern Consulting. But his passion is trying to make the Internet a safer place for young people. Thomas has spoken to tens of thousands of adults and teens across the country, delivering the Above The Fray message, getting parents involved in the digital lives of their children, and helping teens understand the new digital world.