Children must be taught digital conversation etiquette

If they are rude and use bad language, even as a joke with their device, they might repeat this behaviour with people, says expert

Dubai: Dr Valerie Risoli, clinical psychologist, Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic says it is important for parents to monitor all kinds of communication etiquette in children, including with digital devices.

Children using digital assistants risk veering towards rudeness with no consequences, says a study. Is this a valid observation?

I think that the “relationship” that kids today have with these devices is one of the factors that contributes to creating a generation that is more spoilt and rude towards others.

I don’t think it’s the only factor but it’s one of several. So it is partly a valid premise for one simple reason: at a young age, children easily develop new habits. They learn to socialise and interact with others through playing and daily activities. They learn social awareness and skills also while using these devices. If they are rude and use bad language, even as a joke with their device, they might repeat this behaviour while talking to other people.

It is also difficult to understand the difference between reality and imagination. While playing with dolls or puppets, they learn how to talk and interact with others; at the same time, while talking to their phone they learn how to be rude and aggressive, especially if this behaviour is not followed by any negative consequence.

Let’s imagine a child talking rudely to another child or being aggressive towards him — there will be a negative consequence such as his parents will intervene or his friend will be upset. These negative consequences will gradually decrease the probability of that behaviour recurring.

Instead, if the same child is aggressive towards Siri or Alexa and there is no negative consequence to that inappropriate behaviour — instead there is the satisfaction of a need regardless — it is more likely that the same behaviour will be repeated, creating, in this way, a habit that is no doubt inappropriate.

How does constantly dealing with a digital entity impact communication abilities in children, specifically about expecting favours via requests?

Everything we learn is based on the principle of action/reaction or cause/effect or more important in this context, behaviour/consequence. A behaviour that is repeated over and over with no negative consequence becomes a habit.

It influences their communication and language because these inappropriate behaviours are positively reinforced with a positive consequence so they will become a habit.

It sounds complicated but here is an example: A child speaks badly to the phone — yet he gets what he wants, so the consequence is positive — so the inappropriate behaviour is reinforced and maintained — it becomes a habit — the child learns to speak rudely in order to obtain something from his phone as well from his parents as well from other people.

Result: his social skills development is affected.

How important is it for children to learn to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please’ even if it is to a digital entity? Why?

It is extremely important as these are the basic social skills that help an individual be socially aware of others and interact with them.

Through pretend and imaginary play, children learn these skills. When they play with dolls, they may make them say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please’ to each other. So why not reinforce the use of these pragmatic and social skills while talking to electronic devices?

It is extremely important to reinforce the use of these words towards everyone, with no distinction. Only in this way will they learn to be individuals who are socially aware and be able to behave appropriately everywhere.

If we allow a child to kick his toys, he may repeat the same behaviour with his peers one day. Why should we even allow and tolerate rudeness and unkindness in our children?

Should parents be monitoring this interaction?

I strongly suggest that parents monitor this interaction. It may seem funny to be rude to our phone but it is not socially acceptable. If we monitor our children and promptly address this behaviour when it occurs, it will gradually decrease.

For example, we could take the phone away from them when we hear rude language. This will help reduce the occurrence of an inappropriate behaviour (rude talk) and reinforce appropriate manners (talking nicely to others — whether to a digital assistant or people).

If parents are cavalier in their attitude to communication, even if talking to digital assistants, do children pick up that attitude?

Of course. Children copy what adults do. They observe their parents and repeat what they see, through a process called ‘vicarious learning’.

So it is important for parents to be role models in everything they do.

Does digital communication etiquette deserve the seriousness that human conversations do?

Yes, it does. Historically, we live in a time in which the difference between real and virtual is not so clear and marked anymore. This is scary but being kind to a device doesn’t contribute to this non-differentiation. Being kind to a device is important simply because being rude towards living beings is as inappropriate as being rude towards things.

It is important to inculcate good habits and behaviours in interactions, especially for children, since their ability to differentiate between the virtual and real is less clear.

Courtesy is non-negotiable

Dr Rajshree Singhania, Neurodevelopmental Paediatrician, Singhania Children’s Clinic and Therapy Centre said:

“Children need to be taught etiquette, period. It is not just how they talk to digital assistants but also to humans — housemaids, houseboys and those who cannot retaliate.

“I have seen children being rude to their house help, peers and siblings. Certainly, being able to talk rudely to those who cannot answer back, not just electronic assistants but also people, will colour their behaviour towards others.

“If parents and adults are cavalier in their attitude to those serving us, be it digital entities or human beings, children will pick up that outlook.

“Teaching respect for all humans, particularly those who assist us, is essential in bringing up children in order to make them polite citizens — polite not out of fear but out of respect and kindness.

“Parents should certainly monitor how children talk to assistants digital or otherwise. But most of all, parents should be good role models themselves.”


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