Safer Internet Day: teaching digital empathy

Reading time: 3 minutes. National education campaign: Join SSAT to register your school as an official supporter

For Safer Internet Day (Tuesday 6 February) the UK Safer Internet Centre hopes to provide opportunities to empower children and young people to use technology responsibly, respectfully, critically and creatively

Last year, the SID campaign claimed to reach 42% of UK children aged 8-17 – and that as a result, 25% of children spoke up about something that had been worrying them online.

This year, the centre has produced new educational resources looking at ‘digital empathy’ for 3-18 year olds.

Empathy, understanding others’ feelings, is fundamental to communication and connection – but this can be more challenging online than in face-to-face communication. You don’t get the immediate feedback of seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language.

So learning to understand and communicate emotions in a digital context is an essential skill, particularly as the internet plays such an integral role in children’s friendships. Here are four approaches that can be used in encouraging, if not teaching, digital empathy.

Stories and scenarios

Reading stories, exploring character roles and scenarios can all help young people to ‘stretch their empathy muscles’. Extending this approach, stories about the digital world can get children thinking about the characters’ emotions, allowing them to put themselves in their shoes. This can be particularly helpful with younger children, as it does not involve their having to understand the concept of empathy itself.

An interactive story exploring the impact of negative comments online is included in the Safer Internet Day education pack for 3-7s, while the pack for 7-11s includes a drama activity to help put this into action.

For older students, giving them a scenario can be an interesting way of exploring different responses to a situation; getting pupils to play different roles can give them a chance to explore different perspectives. It’s important with activities like this to set clear expectations and ground rules at the start – the PSHE Association have some useful guidelines.

Give young people the language to use

The main challenge with digital empathy is that it can be hard to know what other online users are feeling. Giving students the language (and emojis) to express more complex emotions can help to get them acknowledging their own feelings. Being more in touch with their own emotions is the first step to recognising how others might be feeling.

The education packs for 7-11s and 11-14s both include the quick activity ‘How does being online make me feel?’ This task works as a conversation starter for pupils to explore their emotions in more depth.

Positive commenting

Often when we think about empathy, we think about understanding negative emotions, but sharing the pleasure of receiving a compliment is another good way to explore it. Simple classroom activities can help begin a discussion about online kindness: for example, write each child’s name on a sheet of paper (or wear white t-shirts) and have their classmates write them positive comments. Children will get to share how good it feels not only to receive compliments, but to give them too.

To help think about positive posting more broadly, take a look at the ‘How to post positively’ quick activity in the Safer Internet Day Education Pack for 11-14s and 14-18s.

A culture of acceptance

For some young people, it can be really difficult to acknowledge that different people respond in different ways: that while you feel one way somebody else might feel differently. You can counter this by talking about the importance of remaining non-judgemental, both online and offline. And ensure students know that your classroom is a safe space to explore their feelings.

The SID TV films for 7-11s, 11-14s and 14-18s provide a variety of perspectives from pupils across the UK. Do your pupils agree or disagree with what they hear? There’s no right or wrong answer here – it’s about sharing and listening with respect.

Watch this video about digital empathy:

At, you can download free resources, register your school as an official supporter and join the #SID2018 social media campaign by creating your #ItStartsWithUs pledges.

 Follow the UK Safer Internet Centre on Twitter

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