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Civility Is Now Devalued — So What Will Adults Do About It?

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If there is ever a time to emphasize ideas on civility, commenting, fact-checking, and media literacy, it’s during an election. Children, preadolescents, and teens will learn much during the 2016 presidential campaign just from all the watching. (Read my post The Children are Watching and Seeing, Listening and Hearing.)

Our traditional expectations for civility and ethical behavior are cracking apart right before our eyes.

On the basis of what’s happened at recent political conventions and the beginning of the election season, young people will be witnessing name-calling, stereotyping, hateful comments, online hate, and in some cases veiled bodily threats. Kids will hear things on TV at home and on the televisions that are broadcasting in lounges, waiting rooms, doctor’s offices, and everywhere else. They will hear radios broadcasting the news at home and in other peoples’ homes. And, of course, there’s social media.

Those ubiquitous gadgets that rarely leave kids’ hands will provide enormous exposure to what’s now called the “social media election.” Of course, much of this information is already available to kids who explore the World Wide Web, but the content and concentration of social media exposure during an election cycle are different.

  • If your family does not have a media plan that incorporates regular discussion about civility, respect, and ethical behavior, it’s time to get started. Conversations at home need to occur often, and the content may test adult listening skills.
  • If your school has a digital citizenship program, teachers in all academic areas should work together to refocus on just a few key issues during the fall election cycle — issues that will help kids process what is going on around them. The word civility should be used at every opportunity — in lessons, in assemblies, in sports activities, whenever adults work with children.

Every family, every parent, every school, and every teacher in every subject needs to figure out how to integrate four topics into the curriculum over the months of campaigning. Children of all ages need up-to-date guidance from the adults in their lives to help them process the events around them. The older the kids, the more conversation needs to occur. For this, our first “social media” election, there will plenty of uncivilly to address.

Interpreting Ads and Other Media: Demonstrate how to look at and evaluate information. The old adage, who, what, when, and where is a great place to begin so that they learn to determine where the information came from, who created it, and for what purpose. It does not have to be election materials because kids see ads aplenty in their online lives. Media literacy professionals call this deconstructing the content. Check out this website on deconstructing advertisements at

Fact Checking: Spend time, at school and at home, learning about fact-checking to determine the credibility of campaign information. Teachers can do fact treasure hunts using the various fact-checking websites. Parents can plan, once or twice a week, to fact check an article or a television interview together with kids. The TechNorms blog features a good list, with descriptions, of the fact-checking websites.

Commenting and Responding Online: Remind children to make judgments about whether or not to respond to comments, and more importantly, how to extricate themselves from questionable online activities. Young people need to be reminded, and reminded, and reminded again that responding and commenting is not always required and sometimes complicates a situation. The idea of editorial pause is critical — editing thoughts just like we edit words. Read my blog post, Let’s Teach Children How to Comment.

Hate and Hateful Language: Teach children how to recognize hate language and help them to generate strategies to deal with it, including when to respond, ways to extricate oneself from a  situation, and when to seek an adult’s help. So far this year there are many documented cases of children saying some pretty terrible things to other children. Learn more about the online hate your child may encounter at Canada’s MediaSmarts website.

You can also get ideas at the iCivics website, started by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Or you can read my blog post about iCivics.

Is there a new normal for civility? Will everyone just pretend that expectations of respect and kindness are no longer relevant or important?  I hope not. The Internet and World Wide Web have brought us many good things. Decreasing civility is not one of them.



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