With the meteoric rise in cyber-bullying, parents are desperate to find a way to shield their children. Unfortunately, most parents are far behind their child’s proficiency with technology. Many don’t text, aren’t on Facebook, and are oblivious to the many ways in which kids can taunt each other with technological ease. Although children may be quick and nimble with technology, they lack the maturity to understand its consequences.
A recent article in the New York Times on Digital Bullying (read the MSN version here) addressed these very issues and gave true and heart-wrenching accounts of how parents were left helpless at the hands of their children’s online bullies. “I’m not seeing signs that parents are getting more savvy with technology,” said Russell A. Sabella, former president of the American School Counselor Association. “They’re not taking the time and effort to educate themselves, and as a result, they’ve made it another responsibility for schools.”
Kids have a great deal of anonymity on the internet if they want it, and can easily impersonate another child or steal their identity. This modified form of identity theft (character theft, I tend to call it), allows the bully to hide behind his or her computer with no real consequences for what they are saying. A scathing remark made in passing by one child can haunt another child for the rest of their lives.
In a recent case, a young boy was taunted at school by classmates that claimed he was in turn bullying them on Facebook. He quickly became socially withdrawn until his mother looked on Facebook to see that someone with his name and picture was in fact taunting other students online. Except, of course, that it wasn’t him. Some fellow classmates had stolen his Social Networking Identity and set up a false Facebook account as if they were him. The bullies then berated other kids, attracting negative attention to the victim. The victim’s mother found out that it’s not so easy to stop this cycle.
For one thing, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to reclaim one’s identity. In the previous case, the mother had to contact police, who went through a process to subpoena both Facebook and the internet service provide to uncover the bullies’ identities. Only then were they able to shut down the account, but the damage to the victims reputation had already been done.
Some parents prefer to resolve the issue privately, by contacting the bully’s family. Although psychologists do not recommend that approach with schoolyard bullying, with cyber-bullying, a parent’s proof of cruel online exchanges can change that difficult conversation. So what do you say?
Approaching another parent can be awkward. Most parents see their children’s actions as a direct reflection of their ability to raise their child. This means they can easily become defensive and almost submissive of the actions. As quoted in the Times article, experts recommend you follow a script like:
“I need to show you what your son typed to my daughter online. He may have meant it as a joke. But my daughter was really devastated. A lot of kids type things online that they would never dream of saying in person. And it can all be easily misinterpreted.”
In most situations, the reporting parents should be willing to acknowledge that their child may have played a role in the dispute. To ease tension, suggests Dr. Englander, an expert on aggression reduction, offer the cyber-bully’s parent a face-saving explanation (like that it was probably meant as a joke). If they are willing to accept what happened, they are more likely to take action.
Parents need to be mindful that their children might be victims of cyber-bullying, and they need to be just as aware that their kids might be the cyber-bullies. Here are some steps to get you started down the right track with your kids:
- Have short, frequent coversations over dinner about what it means to be cyber bullied
- Establish a no-tolerance stance on your child bullying anyone, in person or on line
- Friend your child and if possible, your child’s friends to keep tabs on the dialogue taking place. Let them know that you are interested and observant by communicating with them using social networking. If you are more fond of the stick approach, post a sticky note on your monitor (like another parent in the article did) that says “Don’t Forget That Mom Sees Everything You Do Online.”
- Be open and honest with your child. Communicate the real issues of cyber-bullying and how in some cases this leads to very negative consequences, like suicide
- Encourage your children to talk with you if they have any concerns about their online life
- For more answers and background on keeping yourself and your kids safe, take a look at the Facebook Safety Survival Guide below.
This Survival Guide is an evolving document that I started writing for my young daughters and my employees, and is an attempt to give you a snapshot of some of the safety and privacy issues as they exist right now.
Social networking, texting, instant messaging, video messaging, blogging – these are all amazing tools that our kids and employees use natively, as part of their everyday lives. In fact, they probably understand social networking better than most adults and executives. But they don’t necessarily have the life experiences to recognize the risks.
I’d like to make their online vigilance and discretion just as native, so that they learn to protect the personal information they put on the web before it becomes a problem. Social networking is immensely powerful and is here for the long run, but we must learn to harness and control it.