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Being kind online takes on new urgency as socially isolated kids and teens find it’s their only destination

Bekah McNeel | April 9, 2020

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Alex Paloglou (far right), 17, a junior at California’s San Rafael High School, is a student leader with Beyond Differences, a national nonprofit that promotes social connectedness, belonging, and online kindness. (Beyond Differences)

For years, parents and educators have been worried about how kids interact with each other online. Now, online is all they have.

The COVID-19 outbreak has kids contained in their homes, attending school online, minimizing face-to-face contact and missing their friends. In the age of social distancing, experts say, families need to pay extra attention to how kids behave on social media.

For Alex Paloglou, 17, a junior at San Rafael High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, the increased dependence on social media “hasn’t brought much of a change for me.” That’s mainly because Paloglou is also a student leader with Beyond Differences, a national social and emotional learning nonprofit that promotes social connectedness, belonging and online kindness.

He was already using social media frequently, Paloglou said, and trying to behave exactly like he would if his onscreen peers were standing in front of him. That’s part of the etiquette he learned back in middle school from Beyond Differences’s Be Kind Online curriculum.

Such etiquette is needed now more than ever, said Beyond Differences founder Laura Talmus. The 10-year-old nonprofit creates free resources used by 6,100 teachers and student leaders in 50 states, Talmus said. The demand is driven by reports of bullying, sexual harassment and other risky behaviors online.

Those behaviors are always concerning, but the combined stress of flattening-the-curve measures, family financial pressure and anxiety over COVID-19’s onslaught could lead to more harsh words online, she said.

“We should brace ourselves for an onslaught of insensitivity,” she said.

The May 15 timing of the group’s Be Kind Online Day is fortuitous, Talmus said, as is the release of its latest Be Kind Online curriculum in the coming days. Beyond Differences sponsors two other days of observances to correspond with its key initiatives: Know Your Classmates Day in October and No One Eats Alone Day on Valentine’s Day.

Cruel and hostile behavior has risen with the spread of the disease. A group of Dutch students faced outrage after dressing in stereotypical Chinese costumes and posing for a photo with a sign saying “Corona Time.” The New York Times reported last week that Chinese Americans are being spit on and yelled at. Criticizing the way others are responding to the outbreak online is common.

Even ordinary exchanges between teachers and students are becoming more strained as well, Paloglou said. Because students are now interacting with teachers online, he said, he’s using his Beyond Differences training to make sure his typed communications are respectful. It’s easy to sound entitled, critical and dismissive over messenger or text. He recalls advice given to him by a teacher years ago: “If you want to talk about your grade, never send it in a text.”

Numerous class discussions are now taking place via Zoom and other videoconference platforms, and Paloglou said the chat functions on those platforms, which allow muted members to send messages while others (like the teacher) are talking, lend themselves to short, snappy interactions. What is clearly goofing off in person might come across as malicious in writing. “We have to be mindful of our wording,” he said.

Chalkbeat recently reported on Zoombombing, a word that didn’t exist a month ago, and which can range from students — or their friends with whom the Zoom link has been illicitly shared — flooding the text-message part of the platform to posting inappropriate photos.

“Zoombombing is no joke. I don’t think we were ready for that,” one New York City co-principal said.

Beyond Differences’s mission of reducing social isolation has special implications for homebound teens as well, Paloglou said: “The question is, ‘Who do I call or who do I text?’”

The Know Your Classmates and No One Eats Alone curricula teach students how to look out for each other and make sure that their peers are not being left out. Paloglou suggests reaching out to classmates who may have been socially isolated even before school closures and stay-at-home orders.

Be Kind Online curricula explain what happens to the middle-school brain when kids look at social media — whether they see themselves represented positively, negatively or not at all. The absence can be just as tough, Talmus said.

Tagging, liking and commenting with positivity and inclusivity in mind is something anyone can do to create a positive social media atmosphere, she and Palaglou explained.

Parents can help kids process all of this, Talmus said, and the free Beyond Differences curriculum can help.

As more teens connect via group platforms like Netflix Party, Zoom, Watch2gether, Houseparty, Google Hangouts Meet and Skype, new challenges and opportunities arise. The apps make it easier to include more people, which makes it hurt worse to be left out.

Some celebrities are leading the inclusivity charge by hosting digital parties, like the one D-Nice livestreamed on Instagram, or social media mini-concerts filmed in their homes, as John Legend and others have done. Coupled with the scores of makers and artists offering classes and tutorials online — such as the wildly popular Mo Willems “Lunch Doodles” — generosity and solidarity are, as they say, trending.

Altruism via social media is, in many ways, a moment for today’s high school students to shine. But they still need genuine connection while they #stayhome — a need that existed before COVID-19, Talmus said.

Teens, especially the current Gen Z crop, she explained, are constantly trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between their desire to unite for a better world and the overscheduled, heavily mediated lives they were born into. Social media keeps their interactions managed and shallow in many ways, she explained, but at the same time, they rarely fully disengage. Adults have to model what deep connection looks and feels like.

“They love having adults hearing their voices and their ideas,” Talmus said. Being kept together at home by the COVID-19 protocols creates an opportunity for just such interactions.

Online conflict, of course, will come up, Paloglou acknowledged, and that could be more challenging. Normally, when friends “beef” online, he said, they see each other later at school and things calm down. Once they deal with each other face-to-face, with expressions, tone and social accountability restored, they are more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Without that in-person reset, he explained, people will have to be more intentional to resolve matters.

One way to minimize conflict, Paloglou advised, is to remember that just as the screen does not protect others’ feelings, it also doesn’t protect your reputation. Many times, he said, students think that the screen “protects” them from the social consequences of their words.

“They’re just trying to be funny,” he said, but their online persona, which may be edgier and snarkier, always affects their real-world reputation.

Now is definitely the time, Talmus said, to give every text message and email one more read-through before sending. Take a deep breath, she advised, and consider the many stressors not just on you, the sender, but on the receiver. Ask: How’s this going to land?

Beyond Differences has developed another list of ways to reduce social isolation in the days of social distancing.

  • Use the No One Eats Alone® Conversation Cards to create a fun group chat activity or post online and invite others to join in using the hashtag #IsolatedNotAlone.
  • It’s your time to shine! Share your talents. Create a video or go live on social media and teach a new skill.
  • Play online games with others. Encourage students to invite a new friend to play the game — maybe someone from school whom they haven’t yet had the chance to get to know very well.
  • Come together on Zoom or FaceTime to play music together.
  • Post a photo on Instagram or in a group text. Invite your friends to write a story together. Select the type of story (fairy tale, historical, fiction). Write an introduction sentence to prompt creativity, then tag a friend. Each person gets to add one line to the story and tag another friend. For students, the goal is to include everyone in your class.
  • Take the Pledge to Be Kind Online. Complete the statement: “I pledge to #BeKindOnline by…” and share on social media.

The full list can be found on the organization’s website, where Beyond Differences has free lesson plans and resources for middle-school-age students available to download immediately for use at home.

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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