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How to parent in a digital world

The Dalai Lama Center for Peace & Education has identified five domains of heart-mind well-being, which help us understand the ways our kids need to be nurtured in their emotional and social development. Image by Dalai Lama Center for Peace & Education.

How should we prepare our kids for an online world? That’s the question I’ll help families address in my March 4th workshop for Hollyhock Vancouver on How to Parent in a Digital World, and it’s a question that Vancouverites are well positioned to tackle.

In the outdoorsy culture of Vancouver, we’re great at preparing our kids for a lifetime of physical health by getting them into activities ranging from yoga to snowboarding before they even start school. And more and more families are actively guiding their kids’ social and emotional learning, supported by the work that has been done to integrate that kind of learning into the BC curriculum.

But we also need to prepare our kids for a life in which a significant portion of their work, learning, leisure and relationships will unfold online. Because online experiences and interactions are significantly different from what takes place in the offline world, kids need the guidance and support of parents and educators if they are to develop the skills that will help them lead meaningful, effective lives online as well as off.

The Dalai Lama Center for Peace & Education has identified five domains of heart-mind well-being, which help us understand the ways our kids need to be nurtured in their emotional and social development.

These five domains also provide a useful framework for thinking about what our kids need to learn online, so that the social and emotional skills they develop offline get carried through into their online experiences…and so that their online behaviours and experiences don’t forestall or undercut the social and emotional skills we want them to develop.

Part of what makes this challenging is that the online world is so new. We’re able to identify the social and emotional competencies needed for the offline world because we know the norms of the offline world, and what kids will need in order to function within those norms.

The norms of the online world are still emergent — and part of the reason we need to nurture our kids’ online competencies is so they can make that online world more compassionate and meaningful. Here’s where our kids need help:

Relationship skills: Getting along with others online

This is what the Dalai Lama Center describes as “the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults”. Since the Internet has now become an important site for creating and maintaining our relationships, kids need to learn how to form and sustain healthy relationships online.

That includes learning how to express themselves in text-only media like email (which lacks the clues that come from tone of voice or body language), learning how to handle criticism and aggression (all too common online), and how to disagree respectfully without starting a flame war.

Compassion: Cultivating online empathy

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social awareness as “the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and culture”. That kind of empathy is clearly lacking in a lot of online interaction — but that doesn’t have to be the case.

We can help kids cultivate that kind of awareness both online and off, by teaching them how to give and get support online, particularly if they face a challenge that’s hard to discuss with parents or peers. At the same time, we need to help them get outside the social media echo chamber by following and engaging with people who have different ideas and experiences.

Solving problems: Critical thinking goes digital

The Dalai Lama Center notes that children need to cultivate "the ability to behave in a peaceful and respectful way in a variety of situations and relationships.”

Making good choices online requires advanced decision making skills, because so much of that decision making occurs in the absence of the kind of context we get offline.

Core decision-making skills in the online world include learning how to protect themselves (including making good decisions about how much information to share), how to think autonomously (in a world where much of the information they see is targeted or determined by algorithms), and how to assess online information (so they can separate fact from speculation).

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