As a parent, I want to keep my kids safe. I also want them to learn to play chess, visit New Zealand, and consistently wear clean underwear—but keeping them safe is the most important thing.
And that's why I'm so troubled by the fact they'll almost certainly encounter online bullying at some point. I've spent a good deal of time recently looking at various ways kids can be cruel to each other in the digital world. I've learned that what kids call "drama" is incredibly common, and that there are many diverse ways it can happen. I've even learned that some kids are bullies and victims at the same time. (Check out the first blog post in this series, to read more about what I've learned.)
But why, when the problem is clearly so prevalent, haven't we been able to put a stop to it?
Suffering in silence
One of the reasons it's so tough to stop this kind of harmful cyberdrama, is that it often goes unreported. Research suggests as many as half of victims don't tell a teacher or parent what's going on. The reasons are many—fear of retaliation, concern a parent's involvement will only make things worse, or even simple embarrassment. Think about how reluctant you were the last time you had an uncomfortable conversation with another adult. Now imagine you're twelve and have no life experience when it comes to handling tough topics. Throw in the possible consequences of revealing online problems, and it's a little more clear why so many kids struggle silently.
Kids really are hesitant to tell anyone when cyberbullying occurs. There seems to be a common fear that if they tell their parents, for example, they'll lose their Internet access.
So the first thing we can do to protect our own kids, and perhaps begin to turn the greater tide, is to communicate with them—early and often.
The more comfortable kids are discussing difficult subjects with a parent, the more likely they'll be to let that parent know if they're being victimized. But this is hard! So what can we do to make it easier? (And what can we do if we didn't start early, and haven't gotten into the habit of talking often?)
Fear of disclosure outweighs desire to share, and that's a big problem. Kids are not likely to just initiate a conversation unless their environment is conducive to that. Kids know what parents want to hear and don't want to hear.
Dealing with cyberdrama
Lay the groundwork. Teaching kids empathy is important. But so is teaching them what to do when they see something going on that doesn't feel quite right. The book Protecting the Gift is a resource for parents on how to keep kids safe from all sorts of threats, both online and in the real world. The emphasis is on trusting your instincts, and teaching your kids to trust theirs—while becoming educated about the actual threats posed to kids and teens.
Understand what you're up against. The business models of social networking companies depend on getting as many users as possible. So it's not necessarily in their best interests to police their sites for bad behavior if that means losing users in the process. (Companies are now targeting teens directly on social media, because they know that's where they live.) Talk to your kids about this, so they're aware of what's likely going on behind the scenes of popular platforms.
Know what your kids are doing online. You wouldn't dream of letting your ten-year-old wander the streets after midnight, unsupervised. Consider using the same sort of precautions you take in real life when you hand your child an iPad. Know where they are online and who they're with. Know what apps they spend most of their time on, and keep an ear to the ground when it comes to which apps are currently getting your neighborhood high-schoolers in trouble.
A lot of parents do monitor every aspect of their kids electronic use today. The kids don’t like it, but I’ve never told the parents stop. If you have a typically developing child, talk with them about the dangers. Parental support can actually decrease the likelihood of bullying, a lot of it is about developing, learning coping skills.
Get points just for having the conversation
Recent research revealed a surprising (and wonderful!) conclusion—just keeping an eye on your kid’s social media interactions, and talking to them about it, is enough to erase any downside.
"Parent monitoring effectively erased the negative effects of [teens’] online conflicts."
Bottom line? We have a choice: to take a teen's phone away altogether (here's why I don't think that's the answer), or to acknowledge that navigating social media sensibly is just one of the many skills we'll need to help our children learn on their way adulthood.