The tragic suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Mass., in January has raised awareness of a new epidemic - cyber bullying. A beautiful young girl is dead. The public is incensed, parents are terrified and her classmates are facing serious legal action. The Phoebe Prince case has also inspired anti cyber bullying legislation in NY and other states.
Just think back to the fragility and sensitivity of your adolescence and how devastated you were to be the target of teasing. Schoolyard bullying has a beginning and an end. Cyber bullying is public, faceless, cowardly and infinite.
Who are these cruel adolescents? Can we blame it on bad parenting? How can we encourage our children to embrace a community of caring? How can we protect our children during this precarious stage of life when everything seems so important? I spoke to Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) about how parents can help and what we need to know.
"The most important thing for parents to do to protect their children online is to have an ongoing conversation about what sites they are visiting and about what they are doing online. When our kids are younger, it may be appropriate to set parental controls on computers, cell phones and portable gaming devices - that are many times web enabled," Balkham says.
"Older kids should be given more room to roam - but parents need to talk to them about responsible online behavior and about the importance of protecting their online reputation."
I like the concept that actions in their online world shouldn't be different than actions in their offline world. Pictures, posts, comments live forever. It seems like "sexting", inappropriate picture postings, etc. is an internship to the ubiquitous Hollywood sex tape.
Balkham encourages parents, teachers and friends to help kids make wise choices about the content they seek and post online; about whom they contact and who they allow to contact them and how they conduct themselves on the web.
A lot of times the parents are clueless when it comes to the technology and the kids are light years ahead. FOSI recommend that parents research the devices they put in the hands of their children and talk to the sales people who are selling the devices about the available features and steps they can take to keep kids safe.
To educate kids on cyber bullying, FOSI promotes a Culture of Responsibility online. FOSI believes that government, law enforcement, industry, teachers, parents and the kids themselves all have to work together to promote safe and responsible Internet use.
"There is no silver-bullet solution to preventing cyber bullying. However, there are countless tools, rules and education initiatives in schools to help promote more responsible online use. We need to infuse online safety teaching throughout the K-12 curricula and educate kids on the possible consequences that can result from inappropriate behavior," states Balkham.
So for all parents: learn about your children's technology and set limits and supervision, teach kids to look out for their classmates and not pass along bullying messages, let them know to speak up to an adult and let their parents or teachers know when bullying behavior is going on.
In this new, amazing and scary frontier of online social networking, IM, email, blogs and texting, it's going to take a village to make sure kids' online activities are safe and productive.
For more information, go to: http://www.fosi.org