As parents who likely have memories from twenty years ago of an existence without email or Internet, it can seem like a brave new world when it comes to evolving technologies. For our kids, technology is their comfort zone, but we don’t want it to become their whole world. We wonder how to set limits on the limitless Internet and protect our kids from harmful messages, especially when it comes to interacting with other young people online.
Bullying, formerly the domain of private spaces like the locker room, has gone public and even viral in the form of cyberbullying. Author Signe Whitson is an expert on bullying, and in her latest guest post she sets forth some invaluable tips for parents to help them monitor their kids’ online activity and prevent their children from becoming victims of cyberbullying. I am thrilled once again to welcome Signe as a guest contributor at Reel Mama.
What Parents Can Do to About Cyberbullying
by Signe Whitson
I remember with clarity the day my daughter “discovered” the internet. She was just three years old and playing hostess to the son of one of my college friends, visiting from out of town. As the two toddlers were breezing through the kitchen, my friend’s son, Jack, stopped short and suggested enthusiastically, “Let’s play computer!”
I laughed, thinking how cute it was going to be to watch the little ones sit and pretend to type on my laptop. Then, before my amazed eyes, Jack navigated successfully to pbskids.com and introduced my daughter to the wonders of the world wide web.
Now, at not-quite-nine, I am still amazed everyday at how natural and intuitive technology usage is to my daughter and to all of her peers who have grown up with computers, cell phones, tablets, and texting as part of their everyday lives. I am also aware, however, that things like Internet safety, cyberbullying and “netiquette” may not register on her radar the same way they do on mine.
When she was very young, I worried about the unknown: online predators who could try to trick her into revealing personal information so that they could cause her physical harm. Now, in her tween years, I know that “stranger danger” is still a threat, but I spend more of my time worrying about the known: frenemies from her daily life who may use taunting texts, humiliating social media posts, and viral videos to cause her emotional harm. It’s no wonder that when she begs me (at least once daily) for a cell phone, I feel chills run up and down my spine.
No matter how tech-savvy my daughter becomes, I am constantly aware that she is young and that it is up to me to monitor her safety and well-being with technology in the same consistent, diligent way that I ensure her well-being on a playground. These basic rules are our first line of defense in minimizing (I’m too wise to think that “preventing” is realistic) cyberbullying and using technology in safe, respectful ways:
Talk About Safe Sites
In her pre-literate days, I could rely on the fact that the only way my daughter could get from one website to another was by me typing in the correct website address for her. Likewise, I knew that she would be content staying on PBS Kids, Disney, or Nick Jr. Websites. Those days are long gone. Flashing icons, interesting links, viral videos–there are so many ways that children and tweens are tempted into visiting and viewing less-than-innocent content online.
Without wanting to scare my daughter out of ever going near a computer again, I do talk frankly with her about the fact that predators exist in cyberspace (I have explained this in terms appropriate for each stage of her development, but have never sidestepped the subject) and that it is important for her to safeguard her personal information while online.
Define “Safe Sharing”
I’m so glad we had the talk about safe sites when we she was young, because it has helped us make a seamless transition in her tween years to talking about what is—and what is never, ever, ever, never—safe to share online.
First and foremost, our rule is to go photo-free. The network news is chock-full of stories about kids who have gotten themselves into friendship-destroying, reputation-shattering, college admission-sacrificing, future career-jeopardizing, family-humiliating situations because of photos they have posted online or via text. For parents who don’t want to take as hard of a line on photos, at minimum, I recommend making sure that the photos their kids share are never suggestive or sexual in any way.
Next on my list of words of wisdom to my technology worshipper: What you post is permanent. Once you share something online, it is out of your hands where it goes, who will forward it, who will see it, and how it can potentially be used. When Queen Bees and Wannabeees author, Rosalind Wiseman called technology a weapon of mass social destruction, she was not exaggerating; according to the CDC, 97% of middle schoolers are bullied while online.
So, as much as my daughter might think she can trust her BFF with her deepest, darkest secrets, I remind her of the importance of never posting personal information that a BFF-with-a-grudge could at some point distort and use against her.
Set Clear Guidelines on Etiquette
When the internet first became a powerful force in the lives of kids, the term “netiquette” was coined to describe ethical ways to interact while online. Though no equivalent phrase has yet emerged for cell phone use (cell-iquette??), it is important to talk to kids about how to treat others while texting. For example, I pose these questions to my daughter (only to an occasional groan, surprisingly):
- Would you say the words you are texting to a person’s face?
- What would your parents think if they read this text?
- Could this message you are sending cause hurt or embarrassment to me, my friends, my family, or anyone else?
- Can your text be taken out of context and used to hurt you or someone else?
- If you received a threatening or rumor-spreading text message, what would you do?
- How does technology make it easier for you to say something unkind to someone?
Cell phones and social networking sites are prime tools of bullying among young people, so being clear that texts, phone calls, and social media sites are never to be used as tools of gossip, exclusion, embarrassment, etc. is essential. Likewise, parents are wise to encourage their kids to tell them about any incidents of cyberbullying that they are aware of, even if they are not directly involved.
By keeping a dialogue going, parents can position themselves to help a child who may be being bullied online and can establish a set of standards for how their own kids must behave online.
Know the Lingo
Are you familiar with these text-friendly acronyms?
Texting has a language all of its own. Laugh out Loud (LOL), Just Kidding (JK), and Be Right Back (BRB) are common enough, but while most adults that are parents today take for granted that ATM stands for a bank’s Automatic Teller Machine, kids can tell you that it is more likely to refer to their being “at the mall.” Online lingo is cryptic, clever, and intentionally elusive. The over-30 crowd may never know all of the acronyms, but the more parents educate themselves about the lingo their kids are using, the better able they are to monitor technology use and abuse.
Know Your Child’s Passwords
Am I a helicopter parent? I don’t really think so, though I will own the accusation if necessary, for my firm belief is that kids need clear guidance, limits, and expectations when it comes to using technology. In my own home and in the workshops I do, I always advise parents that when the time comes to allow their child access to a cell phone, Facebook, YouTube, or any other piece of today’s technology, they would not be overstepping their bounds to let their kids know that they maintain the right to access their child’s accounts at any time.
The relative freedom of cell phones and social media sites tempt even the most trustworthy and responsible kids to engage in risky behavior, so it is important for parents to let their kids know upfront that they will be reading texts, reviewing MMS messages, scrutinizing Facebook posts, viewing YouTube uploads and providing any other kind of oversight that underscores the importance of safe technology usage by kids.
While I advise parents to know their kids’ passwords, it is equally important that parents tell their kids not to give their passwords to friends—like, ever. Trusted BFF one day, sworn enemy the next; when kids give up their passwords, they are giving up control of their personal accounts, their online identity, and potentially their good reputation.
Lastly, if your child is using a social networking site such as Facebook, ask to “friend” them or, at minimum, ask another trusted adult to do so. While kids may initially resist this as “spying,” when parents present this guideline as coming from a place of love and concern for their child’s well-being, the young person’s sense of paranoia often melts away.
And one final note to wrap up my thoughts on the topic of keeping kids as safe as possible when it comes to using today’s social technology. In response to a conversation about cyberbullying recently, I heard someone bluster, “I don’t know what the big deal is–all of those sites and gadgets have parental controls on them. Parents should just use them and be done with it.”
If only it were that simple. I agree with his basic advice about activating parental controls: adults should use them. However, I caution all parents not to rely on them as a sole means of safety for kids. Parental controls are limited…and we all know how good kids can be at testing limits! Automated safety features are a great first line of defense—best fortified by discussion, guidelines, standards, knowledge, interest, and a whole lot of support for kids.
Signe Whitson, LSW is a national educator on bullying, mother of two daughters, and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying. For workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com,“Like” Signe on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.
This is great information. I always needed help with this. Thank you for sharing
Jai M. says
Good advice here. When you read about cyber-bullying it’s usually all about how to defend yourself against it. I like that you mentioned the other side of the coin with your kids doing the bullying. You can really hurt other people’s feelings just by being careless and not meaning to do harm.
Great advice! I know I use urban dictionary if I see something from one of my kids or their friends that I don’t get. It’s been super useful.
Thanks for the advice you’ve shared here. Lots of time, parents feel helpless when it comes to this subject and the kids themselves are not aware of how damaging it could be to those who they are bullying.
Thank you for all the advice!
I really want to tell my kids NO to computers until they are 20. I guess I can’t do that though, huh?! 😉
Great tips. My daughter is only a toddler but her future use of the Internet scares me. There have always been bullies and predators, but today there are more ways to exploit and harm children than my parents could have ever dreamed of when I was a kid.
Jennifer (Double Duty Mommy) says
great post and great info. thanks for sharing
Sharon Shoemaker says
Kids can be real mean, but now with the internet, seems as if bullying has spun out of control. Shielding kids from the internet won’t stop bullying all together, but I am a firm believer that monitoring your child’s internet activity is not only a good idea but it will also protect your children from other dangers out there. We need to protect our kids, but also we need to instill good old fashioned morals and respect for others. I tend to see a real gap in lack of respect just from my generation compared to these newer generations, and I am only 35.
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some great information! Will definatly be bookmarking this page for future reference
cathy henatyszen says
this is such a great write up…
it’s a shame that cyber bulling is so bad, schoolyard bullying is bad enough, but the cyber stuff can harm someone so badly, and too many kids have taken their lives due to it.
Hi Cathy: Thank you so much. The cyberbullying epidemic is heartbreaking. At Reel Mama one of my goals is to provide resources for parents to spend quality time with their kids but also to help them find ways to cope with some of the challenging issues facing kids today. Communication is vital when it comes to bullying of any kind.
Jo-Ann Brightman says
These are wonderful tips. Although it is a shame that there are so many bullies and predaotors out there it is a fact and must be handled by us.
Cheryl Chervitz says
I think every parent should make sure that their children are not bullying others online. If they are being bullied, they need to tell an adult about it.
RANDY FULGHAM says
good advice and nice review article
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RANDY FULGHAM says
I WAS BULLYIED FOR 7 YEARS -THEN I DECIDED TO DO SOME BULLYIN WHEN I GOT ENOUGH
RANDY FULGHAM recently posted..http://www.addthis.com/bookmark.php?v=250&pubid=eprizeaddthis
I know how frustrating it must have been to get bullied. I was bullied myself, but I’m convinced that bullying as a response is not the answer. It just perpetuates bullying and makes the problem worse. In terms of telling our kids what to do in the face of a bully, I think standing up for yourself and speaking up is the way to go.
Jo Ann Moffatt says
I was bullied relentlessly in elementary school by the same girl for years. It made going to school very stressful as I lived in fear of the next round of insults every minute of the day. She was a year older than me but I was in a split class with her. Finally, when she went on to Junior High I had a very peaceful and fun year. When I moved on to Junior High she must have moved on to a different target because she pretty much left me alone. However, another bully stepped in to her role and seemed to enjoy watching me cry after name-calling and getting other girls against me. Finally, in High School I was free from all bullying. I don’t know what makes a person take a hate on to another. My parents kept telling me my bullies were jealous of me. Something I have never believed. It is great to see hotlines that kids can call when it just gets to be too much. Anti-bullying programs should have been in place many years ago. Bullying changes who a person is. What a shame that children can be so cruel to each other.
Jane Ritz says
This is great information for bullying on-line. One thing that concerns me is bullying at school. Teachers hands are really tied and it’s mostly talk the talk-not walk the walk. This is indeed a serious problem.
Maria Iemma says
It is so sad that so many kids are affected by bullying. Parents have to stay vigilant and look for signs that their child affected.
Paula V says
Very good advise and guidelines.
Rebecca DeCamp Bryant says
Thanks so much for all this information. I am raising an eleven year old granddaughter and I am out of touch with some of these things. This will be very helpful for me going forward.
I loved this article! In depth and detailed about a subject that is really important for us as parents to address these days. Loved the question list to be posed to kids to get them thinking of the impact of their actions. 🙂
Lisa W says
What a great article! I am terrified for my kids with all the bullying going on. I just want to keep them young and in a bubble! This info is a great resource! Thank You!
michelle e says
cyber bullying not cool ever
Eva Mitton-Urban says
Always have been a hands-on Mom. My 9 yr old Evan, plays on Facebook, loves Farmville and Cityville. One day he came running up stairs and said Mom “You should see what just popped up on Chat”. Well, I came down and there was an email address and a woman in lingerie prompting my son for a reply. Quickly reported her to FB and then blocked her as well. Hmmm went like this : “Son, time we revisited our talk about privacy/bullying/sharing….” Keep the communication lines open – Listen and Instruct !
Dona Keyton says
To me bulling is a form of Terrorism.
Becky Schollian says
WOW!! I have a toddler G’son & baby Novalee is due in July. I have heard so much regarding online bullying it’s frightening!! thank you for this wonderful & information post. I will be using this to educate my little one’s as they grow. AWesome!!
Thanks for all the great advice you are giving parents about the internet! I also think all parent’s should have their kids passwords!