How to help children communicate appropriately online

Socialising with friends and strangers has become a large part of online gaming and social media. Our expert panel has advice for supporting your child in communicating positively with others online.

Young girl with headphone and laptop

Will Gardner

Director, UK Safer Internet Centre, coordinators of Safer Internet Day and CEO, Childnet
Expert Website

Safer Internet Day aims to inspire a national conversation about using technology responsibly, respectfully, critically and creatively. For parents, carers and their families, there’s no better way to get started than sharing your favourite online experiences together. We encourage families to make discussions about the online world a normal part of their day-to-day lives – whether you’re into games, social media, or streaming, make time to sit down, chat and enjoy these things together.

Helpfully, these moments can also help children in understanding the right way to communicate online. The more often you speak honestly about life online, the more opportunities there are to introduce ideas about respectful language, empathy and more. Remember, the ways you talk about respect offline are just as useful when talking about the internet. Kind words, treating others as you’d like to be treated and taking a step back when needed are all great tips to share and model at home.

Karl Hopwood

Independent online safety expert
Expert Website

We know that when people communicate online, they often say things that they wouldn’t dream of saying in a face-to-face situation. Being online means that people can lose their inhibitions and not being able to see the person that they are communicating with means that there can be a lack of empathy. The age-old mantra of treating people in the way that you would like them to treat you should still apply. If you wouldn’t be prepared to say something to their face, then you probably shouldn’t be saying it online either – even if it does feel easier. It is absolutely crucial that adults model the right behaviours – setting a good example and not getting involved in online arguments is important; we all know that children and young people will follow the example that adults will set.

Some young people talk about banter online – whatever we think about ‘banter’, defined as good natured teasing – it is very difficult to do this online; the lack of facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and context means that it is easy for someone to misinterpret what is being said, and the person saying it won’t even know. Having a pause for thought before hitting ‘send’ is important. Fortunately, some of the tech companies are already using nudge technology – asking users whether they really want to say something if it appears that it might be hurtful or upsetting to someone else.

Andy Robertson

Freelance Family Technology Expert
Expert Website

Teaching good online behaviour is not all that different from teaching good real-world behaviour. Our children pick up on how we behave ourselves as much as how we tell them to behave. This means that a powerful step is to start while they are young and play online games together. There are lots of great examples of safe online games to play together. This creates a context where you and your child can experiment with different communication, make healthy mistakes together and learn how to treat others well.

As well as teaching healthy online communication there are some video games that offer a way for children to learn civic responsibility and participation. For example, this list of games that develop civic identity can be a great way to address topics such as discrimination, bullying and fairness.

A great example is Rainbow Billy where you have to listen carefully to the characters you meet so you can help them escape their fears and foibles to gain confidence and friendship.

Dr Elizabeth Milovidov, JD

Law Professor and Digital Parenting Expert
Expert Website

Landline rotary telephones, pen pal letters, public telephone booths or passing notes in class are a few examples of how tweens and teens connected before Internet existed. Today’s online communications allow young people to connect using text messages, chat, emojis, secret apps and more.

Not only have the tools of communication evolved, but the language that young people and children use to communicate have also evolved to include slang words, colloquial expressions and even emojis. And unfortunately, not everyone has the same reference guide to decipher the meaning, so online communications may be susceptible to misinterpretation.

We can encourage our children to be considerate with how they communicate with others online by using the same techniques that we use IRL:

  • Demonstrating by example and showing consideration in your own communications.
  • Reminding your children to be respectful of others.
  • The classic “think first, act second” works well online as well.
  • Finding teaching moments where you can — when watching movies together, chatting about school stories or even news stories.

In communications from yesterday or today, the power of language is the basis of connecting young people. And no matter what method our children and young people use to communicate online, parents and carers can raise digital children to be considerate of others – just as they do in real life.