Seattle's Child

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Raising Respectful Cyberspace Citizens

Tips for parents from a technology educator about how to teach kids the right way to behave on social media.


You’ve probably seen the poster. After all, it’s been hanging in classrooms for decades.  It’s simple, just an acronym , intended to guide verbal behavior — THINK:  T: Is it True? H: Is it Helpful? I: Is it Inspiring? N: Is it Necessary? K: Is it Kind?

Holly Gerla- technology coordinator at Charles Wright Academy

But recently Holly Gerla, the technology coordinator at Tacoma’s Charles Wright Academy has updated the adage for our digital age: THINK before you speak has become THINK before you Facebook, Instagram, text, tweet and so on.  And, while it doesn’t make a proper word, Gerla and her students have added a “Y” on the end for “Is it Yours?”

Gerla teaches a Digital Citizenship class to the ninth grade students at Charles Wright Academy, the reasoning behind ninth grade being that most social media sites have a minimum age requirement of 13. However, she recognizes that many kids have access to the internet much earlier, therefore she also gives lessons beginning in the third grade about using technology safely, critically, responsibly and appropriately.

At the beginning of every class, she asks her students to share the rules their parents give them about computer usage. Without fail, every list begins with “Don’t…” While some prohibitions are necessary, Gerla feels that the kids also need rules about what they can do online.

Essentially, she says, they need an online etiquette handbook.  What do good manners look like online, she asks her students. What is the right way to comment on articles, posts, pictures and blogs?  In person, she reasons, we communicate a lot through tone and body language. In order to navigate a world where the conveyance of information is written, often in 140 characters or less, kids need practice. For her class, Gerla creates private sites where kids can post homework reports and then comment on each other’s work. They then discuss those responses and decide whether comments follow the classroom’s THINK-Y guidelines and discuss how certain posts could be improved. Students also role-play scenarios that have actually happened — passwords taken, private images shared, relationships damaged — and how to make amends when these situations (inevitably) arise.

Gerla suggests that even if your child’s school does not have a digital citizenship curriculum, there are plenty of opportunities to help him or her develop their online skills at home. “Parents are scared because this technology was not around when they were growing up,” says Gerla “but it’s still just about the relationship that you have with your child.” Talk with them about privacy settings. Remind them to be mindful of the footprint they leave online. Help them put things in cyberspace that they are proud of.  If you come up with guidelines based on you and your child’s shared values, as opposed to imposing blanket restrictions, it’ll be more likely he or she will come to you with questions or concerns. Sort of like another grown-up topic. “Talking about technology is similar to talking about sex education,” says Gerla “Have lots of little conversations repeatedly.”


Here are three additional tips from Gerla:
1. Keep phones, computers, and other "iThings" out of their bedrooms.
2. Set limits on screens of all sizes, not solely phones or computers.
3. Try out these media conversation hooks as a way to get the conversation started on good cyber behavior.

For more information about helping your child THINK-Y as they navigate the ever-changing digital world, check out Gerla’s website,