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Bringing Empathy into the Social Media Sphere

A look at how we can use social media in a more respectful and empathetic way towards our kids.

By Devorah Heitner, PhD

Devorah Heitner is the founder of Raising Digital Natives. She is an experienced speaker, workshop leader and consultant on the digital lives of kids.   She is currently writing a handbook for Raising Your Digital Native. Devorah earned a PhD from Northwestern University and has taught at DePaul University, Street Level Youth Media and Northwestern University. She is delighted to be raising a budding digital native.

February 22, 2013

For parents, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter can be a mixed blessing. Seeing other people's adorable children can be heartwarming, but depending on the kind of day you are having, it can also leave you feeling inadaquate, unsure, or like you are the only parent in the world who is stressed out or dealing with less than ideal behavior…

When we experience these mixed emotions, it offers us an opportunity to understand how magnified the emotions can be for our teens and tweens who are new to social networks and wired for peer comparisons and feelings of exclusion. We can share our own experiences and help balance these inevitable feelings by pointing out the ways that people tend to "perform" their lives online. We can also help our emerging socialites balance their lives with other activities so social networks are not the center of their existance.

Social media offers an opportunity to teach and model empathy even to our much younger children as well.

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Long before our kids design social media profiles of thier own, parents who are using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can examine how we model our participation in these networks to our children. Making sure we model empathy for our own online friends and ensuring we consider who will read our posts is such an important way to prepare children for their own highly connected future.

Some people choose not to share about their children on Facebook, Twitter, and other social spaces. But if you do share about your children, how can you respect their privacy and boundaries as well as teach them about empathy for both the viewers and the subject of the photographs?

So if your child is old enough to understand the idea of photos being shared--certainly if they are 8 or older--you should ask their permission before sharing pictures. If your child is younger than this--imagine them as a privacy oriented 12, 15, or 30-year-old--might they have ANY objection? If so, reconsider. Remember, all of these social spaces will likely be searchable archives in the future where your chid's peers can search for them by name or even by face.

If something is irresistible but doesn't pass your "sensitive 13-year-old" test, consider having a smaller network of sharing such as a Dropbox or Flickr account only accessible to grandparents. Or even a good old fashioned family album with printed photos that your child can one day edit when their future spouse comes to the house to meet you.

Another way to teach young children about empathy in your own social media use is to thoughtfully plan to not share pictures of birthday parties. You don't necessarily want to lead with the idea of exclusion for very young children--as you don't want to encourage that kind of thinking before it occurs on its own. But as soon as they are old enough to have felt excluded, or have talked about why they don't want to invite some kids to a party, you can talk about why we keep such lists private and why we don't share birthday party pics widely: because it is likely to make someone feel left out.

Remember the ways your network may indirectly correspond with theirs. If your 8-year-old has a crush, and you think it is cute, you can share the story verbally with your best friend, without risking embarrassment of your child with wider exposure in ways that might be unanticipated.

Main image attribution: vernieman, Flickr Creative Commons
Thumbnail attribution: owenwbrown, Flickr Creative Commons