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Texting, social sites, email and IM -- this is how kids socialize today. But these tools can also be used to threaten, harass, or gang up on others. To prevent and fight "cyberbullying" parents need to start a conversation with their kids about responsible online behavior from the moment their toddlers learn to swipe a smartphone. Follow these age-by-age guidelines from Common Sense Media to help curb the spread of online cruelty. (Want to get involved? Take Common Sense Media's pledge and make a promise to stand up to cyberbullying.)
Ages 2 - 4
What they can do: Toddlers and preschoolers can "swipe" a smartphone, click a mouse, and imitate their parents talking on a cell phone. Many are also training their parents to fork over their phone whenever they fuss. The toddler and preschool years are all about learning to talk, socialize, and share toys. At this age, children learn best by doing and benefit from using all five senses to understand their environment.
How you can help
--Nurture the life skills that will help your child develop empathy and executive function -- the ability to think through the consequences of their behavior.
--Limit screen time and choose quality, age-appropriate programs.
--Create an environment where technology, electronics, and digital devices are secondary to the real business of living: spending family time, encouraging social interactions, and physically exploring the world.
--Help your child learn to self-soothe rather than rely on electronics to ease boredom.
--Plant the seeds of empathy, conflict resolution, and healthy self-expression by talking through your child's angry feelings and frustration. Say: "Hitting hurts. Use your words to tell me why you're mad."
Ages 5 - 6
What they can do: Many kindergartners love computer games, cartoons -- and your smartphone. They probably know how to navigate to their favorite website, and they're absorbing your messages about technology -- not by what you say, but by what they observe you doing. It's very unlikely that they would encounter cyberbullying at this age, but the more screen time they get, the more potential there is for exposure to negative comments and misbehavior on social sites. Because they can communicate with others, kids really have to understand the basics of kind, responsible, and safe online behavior.
How you can help
--Continue to set limits and supervise online activities very closely.
--Cultivate the qualities of kindness and compassion -- you're raising the digital citizens of tomorrow.
--Encourage acceptance of and respect for people who are different by exposing your child to media with people of different backgrounds.
--Choose quality, age-appropriate entertainment, avoiding anything that models negative behavior without consequences or lessons.
--Talk to your child about ways to be a good friend and solve conflicts with words. Ask: "How would you feel if your friend didn't share his toys with you?"
Ages 7 - 8
What they can do: Kids this age may be playing in online virtual worlds, chatting through pre-scripted chat, playing handheld gaming devices, and surfing the web. Many kids this age start playing casual games at Miniclip and AllGirlArcade, both of which offer online interaction. If your 7- and 8-year-olds play on sites where they can interact with others, they may get a taste of online mischief. Kids sometimes make a game of getting around a site's chat filter by typing in words with symbols like "a$$." Sometimes kids misuse the "flag" or "block" function (which is designed to call out misbehavior) by flagging other kids indiscriminately. Nearly all websites have consequences -- including banning the user -- for this kind of behavior. Exposure to violent content in media can encourage and increase violence and aggressive behavior in kids this age.
How you can help
--Make sure your kid has capable real-world social skills before he or she starts interacting online.
--Keep online socializing to a minimum and confined to sites like Webkinz or Club Penguin, where chat is pre-scripted or pre-screened.
--Explain the basics of good cyber behavior. Tell your kids that things like lying, telling secrets, and being mean still hurt in cyberspace.
--Tell your kids not to share passwords with their friends. A common form of cyberbullying is when kids log in to another child's email or social networking account and send fake messages or post embarrassing comments. Kids can protect themselves from this by learning early on that passwords are private and should only be shared with their parents.
--Ask kids if they've ever seen others misbehave on the Internet, and discuss the consequences for that behavior. Ask how it makes them feel when they see people trying to skirt the rules or say mean things about someone. Ask about a favorite character and what qualities your kid admires about them.
For more age-by-age guidelines up to age 17, visit Common Sense Media.