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 is a licensed social worker, educator on bullying, and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. Visit her at www.signewhitson.com