Screens are now a huge part of how our kids communicate—but you can encourage empathy even when interactions aren’t face-to-face.
Empathy is the ability to step outside of your own point of view and understand another person’s thoughts, feelings or actions—from their perspective. It involves a little bit of imagination and abstract thinking, and it’s a foundational element for social connections and intimacy. Empathy also helps us moderate our own behaviour by understanding how we affect others.
By the time they are toddlers, some kids are already demonstrating empathic behaviour—like worrying for someone who is crying. Just like other personality traits, empathic concern varies dramatically between individuals, but it’s not a fixed characteristic: children “learn” empathy through interactions with adults and peers. Early on, a big part of understanding another person’s feelings comes from reading non-verbal cues—so it can be tricky to know how to encourage empathy when kids are spending more time communicating through screens.
Because the person on the other end of a device isn’t in the same room with them, it can be more difficult for kids to empathize in these situations—and as parents, we need to be mindful that online communication is different than a face-to-face interaction. But with a bit of guidance, kids can bring empathy to their online interactions, and form positive connections with distant friends and family. Below, we explore four strategies to encourage empathy behind the screen.
Start with the basics, IRL
For kids to bring empathy to their screens, they first need to have a solid foundation in real life. They’re looking to the adults around them to learn appropriate behaviours, and it can be helpful to draw explicit connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviours. If their friend takes a spill at the playground and cries, connect the dots for them verbally by telling them, “Ben is sad because he hurt his knee.”
For older children, you can also ask them to use a bit of imagination during role-play, or while reading stories and watching videos. Ask your child to explain how a character in a book might be feeling, and why they’re feeling that way. Drawing connections between an external circumstance and an internal emotion can help kids learn cause and effect—a precursor to understanding how their actions can impact others.
This is especially important when kids send a message through a screen, because they aren’t always privy to the reaction of the recipient. Being able to imagine another person’s feelings in an abstract way will help them determine what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
Show them how a message looks on the receiving end
When we’re communicating through a device, it can be easy to lose sight of the person on the other side of the screen. Even for adults, this kind of interaction can feel more impersonal or anonymous, making it difficult for us to see how our messages impact the person on the receiving end. People who are otherwise compassionate might do or say things online that they wouldn’t dream of in real life because they can’t immediately see the consequences. This can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and that’s why it’s important to sit down with your kid and actually show them how messages work.
Start with two devices—one for them and one for you—and open a new messaging thread. Send them a message and let them see how the alert looks. Then, open both devices and compare them side-by-side before having them send a message back. Sending a few messages back and forth this way will help to reinforce that there is another device—and person—on the other end of the conversation. When they understand what happens to a message after they hit send, they’ll be better able to connect cause and effect, action and consequence in their digital communication.
Incorporate video chatting or video messages
When kids are just starting out with screen communication, video can be another effective tool for helping them connect with the people on the other end. This kind of screen communication is a closer analog to face-to-face interaction, because we can actually see another person’s face and hear their voice. Video chatting also allows for the instant feedback that’s often missing in other forms of screen communication, so kids will have a more immediate understanding of how their actions are perceived on the other end.
Since there’s more sensory input with video, incorporating it early on in your kid’s screen communication can help humanize the process. (Hot tip: when video chatting or recording a message for a kid, try to focus your gaze on your camera lens instead of your face or theirs. On their end, this will help mimic real eye contact and make the video feel more personal.)
Lead by example, and start with trusted contacts
The internet offers the ability to instantly connect with all kinds of people—but just because kids can connect with all their friends doesn’t mean they should immediately. Children learn by doing—and the best way to encourage empathy in online communications is to show them what it looks like in a controlled environment. As they’re learning and growing, it’s a good idea to help kids establish a baseline for screen communication with you (and a few trusted adults) first.
Keeping their contact list limited at the beginning will give them a safe digital training ground. It also means you can provide a template for healthy conversations by using affirmative vocabulary and talking about appropriate topics. You can show them the difference between harmless and hurtful language, and give them the tools to express themselves in a positive way.
As your kids become more comfortable and confident with online communication, you might introduce siblings or friends into the mix—but remember that it’s okay to supervise their interactions the same way you would in real life. And if you find anything questionable in their online conversations, you can take the necessary steps to address the situation.
With a little guidance and planning, digital communication can be a positive thing for kids. When you explain how messages work, and draw a clear connection between screens and the people behind them, you can set your kids up for healthy online interactions—and ensure they put their best digital foot forward.
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Image Credits: LSOphoto / iStockphoto LP, Paige Cody / Unsplash, shapecharge / iStockphoto LP