There are days I love social media, and days I despise it.
I love that the internet has provided a community for so many people unable to find camaraderie or connection in their own geographic areas. I love that it’s allowed me to find all of you, and to curate a collection of your stories that the world might otherwise not hear.
But I hate what it’s done to our sense of self. I hate that we are affected by what random, often anonymous/fake-profiled strangers say about us. I hate that it’s facilitated a culture of Bully-Lite, where people can be unbearably cruel and intolerant without ever being held accountable.
I hate that it brings out the worst in us, and I love that it brings out the best.
That’s why I am so in love with Galit Breen’s new book, Kindness Wins. While it’s been promoted as a guidebook of sorts for helping kids learn “how to be kind online”, it’s so much more than that. It’s really a love letter to social media, but with caveats; it urges us to work within this new social structure in a more conscious way and bring old-fashioned courtesy to the new frontier.
In my opinion, no community needs this book more than the parenting community. And not just because we have to teach our kids how to navigate the internet more graciously, but because we need to teach ourselves how to.
Below, Galit provides us with her insight and offers suggestions for those of us dealing with the sometimes underhanded, often overt cruelty of parenting social media. I hope you will find it as useful as I did. (I’ve been trying to incorporate her ideas into my own online dealings, and I’m already finding that it makes a difference. Seriously.)
FFF: Can you tell us how the idea for the book came about?
Galit Breen (GB): Last summer I wrote an article about marriage for The Huffington Post and the comments that came in on it were about my weight and how fat I looked in my wedding dress. I went to a very sad place at first, but a few months later, when I had moved past the sadness, I wrote a second article for xoJane calling out my cyberbullies and saying two simple things: we can do and be better than talking about people’s bodies at first contact and let’s be kinder to each other online. That article went viral and was featured on Time.com, the Today show, and Inside Edition.
Right around the same time, my daughter began more-than-hinting that she’d like to tweet, pin, and post photos online. I had a hard time wrapping my brain (and heart) around sending her into an online space where I had just been cyberbullied. But I love social media and the connectivity and creativity it provides more than I’m scared of it, so I didn’t say no.
Instead, we sat down together and took a look at accounts of kids we both knew and adored. It was then that I saw the kinds of mistakes kids make online. I knew that they weren’t making these mistakes because they’re mean kids, they were making them because they didn’t instinctively know how to be kind online.
We’re the first generation of parents and teachers raising digital kids without having been digital kids ourselves, so we can’t look back at what we were taught to guide what we’ll teach our kids. So when they reach a certain age, we send them online sans the (kindness) talk that maneuvering online requires.
Realizing this, I knew (almost) immediately that I could use what I know from six years of social media work + ten years of parenting and classroom teaching to change this conversation. And that’s how the idea for Kindness Wins was born.
FFF: Why do you think it’s so important for us to be kinder online, and to teach our kids to do the same?
GB: The fact that the article that went viral was the one calling for online kindness says a lot of good things about our society. I think we all realize that this space we’re in right now where our answer to online cruelty is, Don’t read the comments, isn’t quite right. The rub should really be, Let’s change the comments.
By banding together to commit to this, we can create a culture of kindness where we expect kindness and we’re surprised by cyberbullying, where we’re all watching out for each other and for each others’ children, where there’s a safer and kinder online space for all of us.
FFF: What about when you are dealing with strangers on Facebook forums and comment sections? Since these are basically anonymous strangers, is it really that important to be nice?
GB: There’s someone on the other side of the screen is the foundation of online kindness. We should treat people online in the exact same way we’d treat them in person. But our online interactions begin with a cropped and filtered avatar and picking and choosing what to share and how to share it is much like editing our lives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these things! But they do set us up for forgetting what deep down I think we all know—there’s a human being on the other side of our comments.
Because when we interact online we don’t have physical cues—teary eyes, shaky voice–to tell us if we’ve hurt someone’s feelings, we need to understand the impact of online words perfectly before we engage online. The good news is that their impact is exactly the same as that of in-real-life words. So if we wouldn’t walk up to someone and say the comment out loud, to their face, while looking into their eyes, then we shouldn’t type them online.
FFF: Do you think that the way we interact online rubs off on our in-real-life interactions, or are people generally nicer in the real world? In other words, how do our online personas affect our real-life personas?
GB: This is such an interesting question! It’s so important for kids—and adults—to know that the way they treat people online and how they present themselves online should match the way they treat people and present themselves in person. When we forget these, we fall into the traps of “Greener Grass Perception,” jealousy, inauthenticity, and accidental meanness.
Many people see the potential for online dishonesty as a detriment or a reason to stay offline. But I think social media provides so many opportunities for connecting with others and being creative. So I see it as a freeing positive—the invitation to just be you.
Social media is also the great equalizer for introverts and extroverts—everyone has a voice online. I learned how to use my voice, that others would listen, that everyone has a story, and how to connect with others through their stories and mine via blogging and social media. This experience opened so many friendship and career doors for me! So in this way, when used correctly, I do think that our online experiences can affect our real life ones.
This is why it’s so important to have these conversations with our kids and with each other. We all have a choice in how we use social media and how we choose to let it affect us. Might as well choose wisely, right?
FFF: Let’s say you vehemently disagree with what someone says in a Facebook thread, on any given “hot topic”. Is there a way to state your opinion politely and kindly, but still get the point across?
GB: Yes, absolutely. The very first thing you can do to neutralize the intensity of a conversation is to remember that it’s not our job to convince others to think like we do. All we need to do in a dialogue is to speak up for what we believe in, speak our truth, and listen to the other person from the point of view that they’re speaking theirs.
The good news is that speaking to share, learn, and listen is much easier than speaking to convince!
Puzzle-pieced to this truth, is remembering that in most things, most arguments, most disagreements, there’s room for both people to be right—and both to be wrong. This is why some arguments get so heated.
So the above two concepts are built around those who do speak up, and want/need to do so kindly. For those who shy away from debates and dialogue for the sake of not getting involved, one of the most important things I’ve realized I want my own kids to know is this: Kindness and assertiveness aren’t opposites.
While I think that polite words and gentle hearts make the world go round, what changes the world, what also matters, is confidence, assertiveness, and the belief that you matter enough to take up space and to make a difference. These traits aren’t inconveniences, they’re gifts. Kindness and assertiveness can go hand in hand.
FFF: If someone is acting cruel or “trolling”, what is the best way to deal with it? Should you ignore? Respond? Attack back?
GB: There’s not one right way here. You have to know where you’re at—can you engage in a way where you’re acting like you want to? When I was first cyberbullied, I was too sad to respond. I gave myself the time to be sad, and responded only once I had moved away from it. I say if you need that time, take it. And if someone you love is being cyberbullied and they seem to need that time, gift it to them, too. But once you—or they—are ready, then absolutely speak up.
Nothing good happened for me when I was sad and quiet. Real change happened when I spoke up. So many good (kind!) people magnet-ed to my side and I wasn’t alone anymore.
So I say ignore or take the time to be sad or mad as needed, and speak up when you’re ready. While I don’t think that attacking back does anything good for anyone, speaking up for others does.
FFF: Do you think the internet has been more of a force for good or bad in terms of finding connection, support, etc? Should we all just turn off the computer, or is there a benefit to learning to interact digitally that can help our kids (and us) be better humans overall?
GB: I’m absolutely in love with social media—I found so many friendships and career opportunities via it. So I definitely see more goodness to it than bad.
For our kids, it’s where they’ll need to have a presence for future work opportunities and where they’re connecting with each other today. It’s not our job to take away either one of these opportunities from them, it’s our job to teach them how to grasp at them safely and kindly.
Just like our kids needed to learn how to ride bikes, throw balls, and read books, they need to learn this. The good news is that we’ve all been teaching our kids for a long time, and we’re all perfectly capable of doing so. (We’ve got this!)
FFF: Any other advice for parents navigating the online world, so that they can set a better example for their kids in the future?
GB: Post like they’re watching, treat being their example as a privilege, and grasp at the teachable conversations with wild abandon.