In theory, it seems obvious that human kindness is just as necessary online as offline. For some reason, when interacting with others on the web, this becomes easy to forget. Though we often engage in online and offline interactions simultaneously, we can lose perspective and experience these activities as existing in two separate dimensions – one of which doesn’t really matter as much. 

Kids in particular often have difficulty discerning what’s real and what’s not. Readily believing in magical creatures in the stories they read, they are happy to live in a land between fantasy and reality – their eagerness to trust and lack of ability to distinguish fact from fiction makes them vulnerable to the thought that online communications somehow belong to another world. That somehow they don’t work in the same way as face-to-face interactions and are governed by their own online rules. In this regard, our role as parents is to make it clear that online communications are very real – that they impact real people with real emotions and can cause real suffering. 

For this reason, it’s important that we talk to our kids about their experiences in cyberspace – what their online friendships are like, what kinds of things they like to do on the web, and how they use social media. In working to maintain this connection with our kids and an awareness of this (often huge!) part of their lives, we put ourselves in a good position to spot potential problems as early as possible. If you get the feeling that something is wrong – see that your child appears to be upset or stressed out when communicating online, or notice that they are withdrawn and seem out of sorts – engage proactively! Ask questions. Although they may not be eager to volunteer information about such problems, we know that the internet can be a scary and confusing place for kids. As Emotion Coaches, we can help.

If you see that your kid is experiencing problems in this area, don’t hesitate to share your own experience of challenges in the online world. Remember Step 3 of Emotion Coaching, which we discussed on Monday. Can you think of any examples of stressful situations or miscommunications you’ve experienced online? Is there anything you connect with in their experience? Is there a story you might tell them about something that happened to you – a moment in which you felt similarly – that might open a door and make it easier for your child to share the problems that they are experiencing?

Our current blog series has covered an array of difficulties that adults face in their Digital Age relationships. Not everyone is good at clearly communicating their thoughts and feelings – especially online – and navigating the complexities of such social interactions is even harder for kids. Think of all the challenges they face! As parents, we can be there to listen with empathy and validate their feelings. In giving them our attention and understanding, we can show them love and support, and help them to see that they are not alone.

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Communicating With Your Kids

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.