The main thing that’s keeping me from allowing my eight-year-old son to join all his friends on popular online multiplayer games isn’t a fear that he’s going to give personal information away to creeps. It’s that I don’t want him exposed to the hate speech that is so prevalent online.
My kid and I talk regularly about race and racism and how to be an ally to people of colour. We talk about different religions and what it means to be transgender and which words are respectful to say to women and which words are not. I try to keep no topic off-limits, especially when it comes to how we treat people and how we communicate with others.
If you have a kid who’s older than five, I’m sure you’ve heard of Fortnite: Battle Royale. I’m sure you’ve heard about it a lot actually, like every time they open their damn mouth. It’s one of those universal, of-the-moment trends that every first-world child is intimately familiar with. Every kid either plays it, wants to play it, or has already played it out and moved onto the next trend. But is your kid old enough to handle it?
My son has asked me what all the curse words are and what they mean, and I have told him — along with a few common sense guidelines for when it’s probably OK to use them and when to definitely not use them. (In return, he tells me which of his friends curse the most. I see you, John.)
But a few “oh damns” among friends on the handball court is different than the prolonged normalisation of racial or ethnic slurs. I also realise, though, that in much the same way I need to raise my kid to be able to operate independently in the physical world, I also need him to learn how to conduct himself appropriately online. (And I do also realise that having the extra time to figure out how to approach this at all is a privilege that not everyone enjoys.)
However, before I’m ready to let him loose to chat with random gamers, he needs to be able to identify hate speech and respond to it. Common Sense Media tweeted out this helpful 1-minute video recently to get parents thinking about how they can set up some expectations for their kids around hate speech:
— Common Sense Media (@CommonSense) May 8, 2019
Help your kids identify hate speech
“Hate speech” is defined as abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.
It may be confusing for kids to tell the difference between bullying and hate speech. Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media’s parenting editor, writes for The Washington Post that we can help them differentiate it this way:
If someone is trying to hurt someone, or knows that they’re hurting someone, and does it repeatedly online, that’s cyberbullying. When someone expresses vicious views about a group or toward an attribute of a group, that’s hate speech.
You can ask them if they’ve ever heard something that sounded like hate speech and how it made them feel—or how they think they would feel if they were the target of such words.
The thinking tends to be that racists raise racists. Therefore, if you see yourself as a good person, raising your kids with inclusive morals, you would have no reason to worry that they’d grow up to the be the sort of person who would march with white nationalists in Charlottesville. But it happens.
Don’t share it
Emphasise the importance of never sharing hate speech themselves. First and foremost, it’s hurtful and wrong. But it can also potentially be traced back to them and get them in trouble. Kids are impulsive, emotional decision-makers and they crave acceptance, which can lead to some pretty bad choices.
Teach them this online mantra: When in doubt, don’t share.
Report and block
With any new website, social media or online game your child uses, make sure they also know how to both report and block an offensive user. Talk to them about how “reporting” and “blocking” go hand-in-hand. Reporting protects others from being exposed to that person’s hate speech and blocking protects them from personally seeing more of it in the future.
Hate speech, while often legal under the first amendment when it doesn’t threaten a specific person, does typically still violate the terms of service of a website. And it’s fairly easy to report hate speech on most social media websites in a way that keeps the reporter anonymous so your child doesn’t have to worry about bringing unwanted attention on themselves.
Blocking is also a pretty straightforward process, but it can be more challenging when the person using the hate speech is someone the child knows in real life. If that’s the case, talk with them about how they can navigate the situation in a way that feels socially safe for them.
If they’re feeling extra brave, encourage them to call it out
We all want to raise the kids who stand up to the bully, but the truth is that this is hard—for kids and adults alike. But you can encourage them to use their voice for good if they feel comfortable and safe to do so. I often tell my son, “Our words have power.” Our words can hurt people or we can use them to help others, and I look for examples of this in everyday life.
If your child wants to call someone out for using hate speech but they’re not sure what to say, tell them they can always come to you for help in crafting a response.
Check in periodically
As with any of the big topics, hate speech is not a one-and-done conversation. It’s important to be regularly talking about all the ways they interact with others online, particularly as it relates to bullying or abusive communication. Ask your kids if anyone has said anything that has bothered them lately or if they have any questions about a particular word or phrase they heard or read.
If it’s something you’ve never heard before, this conversation is a great opportunity for you to look it up together to determine whether it’s some harmless new slang term or something potentially hurtful and inappropriate.