We're all hearing and seeing the disturbing reports about cyber-bullying and its tragic outcomes. According to a Pew Internet Research study, 38% of girls and 26% of boys online reported being bullied. But only 10% of those experiencing cyber-bullying tell their parents, according to Common Sense Media.
While cyber-bullying appears to be more prevalent among teens, prevention and education need to start earlier, particularly as online media consumption for youth continues to rise. The top online activities for 8-18 year-olds include social networking, playing games and visiting video sites such as YouTube, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. A recent survey by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Hotspex found that 40% of parents believe that kids should start using mobile technology by age 6.
We need to teach young children what it means to be a good digital citizen and how to deal with cyber-bullying before they become even more immersed in digital media as tweens and teens. The elementary school years are the time when kids begin to recognize how they contribute to the world around them -- understanding their larger community and learning to make sense of what they and others contribute to it. These are the developmental milestones that lay the groundwork for how children interact with others -- in both physical and virtual spaces -- which is why early education is critical for helping them learn how to explore the online world safely and respectfully.
Parents can play a critical role in mediating their kids' digital experiences, but it can be tough to know where or how to start. There are many resources to help, including a Digital Citizenship Initiative for young children and their parents from PBS and Common Sense Media. The centerpiece of the initiative is a new, free PBS KIDS online game, Webonauts Internet Academy, that teaches kids valuable lessons, including what kind of information to keep private, how to handle cyber-bullying and how to identify credible sources of information. There are also great resources for kids on how to deal with cyber-bullying on It's My Life. Parents can find helpful tips and information on pbsparents.org.
A proactive approach is imperative to prepare young children to safely navigate the web and interact with other children online. Like learning to ride a bicycle, these first adventures should be carefully monitored by parents and assisted with virtual training wheels and other confidence-building tools before a child is ready to ride solo. Before you know it, they'll be riding on their own.
Lesli Rotenberg is Senior Vice President of Children's Media at PBS, and a mother of two media-savvy daughters.