As we watch cyberbullying playgrounds become breeding grounds for comments that are literally killing teens such as Hannah Smith, Jessica Laney, Ciara Puglsey, Amanda Todd and Erin Gallagher, we wonder what parents can do to protect our children.
Earlier I wrote about how bullies and cyberbullies don't take summer vacations. Well, needless to say, the stress from bullying will be even worse when added to school-related stress.
Dr. Michele Borba, a parenting and bullying prevention expert, recently tweeted, "Most effective/inexpensive way to cut #bullying, boost adult visibility in 'hot spots.'"
Dr.'s Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center concurred and retweeted with the additional tip, "...Yes, both in school and online."
Dr. Borba speaks about hot spots in schools. After attending one of her seminars, I learned these hot spots are hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias, and playgrounds. Simply by placing more school personnel or parent volunteers in these areas, we could potentially reduce bullying. However, when it comes to online bullying, keeping watch on our kids online is like keeping track of a salamander in tall grass. However, we shouldn't put up complete walls that our teens will chafe against. Instead, we should be a shield for them; there to protect, but not too much in the way that we don't allow them to make their own decisions.
I was inspired by a TechCrunch article discussing how companies (especially social media websites) targeting young adults should handle their users. Teen brains aren't fully developed; the parts that keep emotional and impulsive responses are still growing. Knowing this, websites need to step it up and set up a system to prevent this cyberbullying and the subsequent drastic reactions from happening. Take whisper.sh, an app that allows users to share secrets and have anonymous discussions. It recognizes its possibly emotionally fragile audience; it reacts quickly to trolling comments and has associated itself with a nonprofit organization that helps possibly suicidal and depressed teens. Twitter and Facebook are also putting up anti-bullying buttons.
This is all great, but we can't just make a scapegoat out of social media websites and holler for them to be shut down, because bullying will still exist; it'll just find a different outlet. Yes, Ask.fm's lack of safety policies do have something to do with these recent suicides, and yes, it needs to be able to take down "trolling" comments quickly. But that will not solve the problem. Parents' connection with their children will.
It's imperative that parents take a stand as a cyber-shield, because the websites don't have the capacity to influence what their users write and how teens should react. Parents are there to help their children; explain to them how to react to a cyberbully, and how to defend themselves if needed. When I hear about these teen suicides, I can't help but ask, why did these bullied teens continue using website on which people were telling them to "drink bleach"? What makes the perpetrators post horrible comments on there in the first place?
I think most teens and kids understand they should be kind online, but one can be much harsher when behind a computer screen; do they truly comprehend the ramifications of not being nice virtually? It's essential that they know they run the risk of losing a college admission or scholarship, losing a potential job, or jeopardizing a friendship. Even possibly being part of the reason someone takes his or her own life.
We can preach all day long: be kind online. Kindness is a choice; think before you post, think before you tweet. There is no rewind on the Internet... but until your teen completely comprehends what their actions could potentially cause, they may continue to consider their words either humorous or in good fun.
Teens can be extremely conscious of how others view them and when they receive praise online or offline; they (understandably) get a confidence boost. The problem is, when they receive abuse, their confidence can drop completely, and some keep coming back for more. It's a cycle that many teens go through that could be detrimental.
As sites like Ask.fm become more popular among teens, communication is exponentially crucial. If someone is telling your teen to "go die" on a website, parents need to explain that a stranger's opinion about them does not matter; it's the bully handing his or her own issues badly. Check for a change in behavior. Notice if your teen is online for too long and seems to be in an off mood afterwards. Encourage them to talk to you about it and help your teen handle the bully themselves. They'll feel empowered, and hopefully have a higher self-esteem if they have someone there to protect and guide them.
Parents need to learn to be the cyber-shield and a cyber-role model for their teens. They should teach them that though the Internet is an important part of their lives (it is, we can't avoid it). Parents need to set boundaries for their t(w)eens: when to ignore, when to block someone, when to come to another's defense, and how to recognize that their words could be damaging. Be that cyber-shield your child can use to feel safe and confident, but still encourage them to have an arm of their own to make responsible, constructive decisions independently.
• Social media is growing in all of our lives. Today Moms list some tips for teens and how to use apps in a positive way.
• Parents need to learn to be CyberWise: know how to use digital technology. #TakeNoBullies is a campaign parents and teens need to follow to stay updated on cyberbullying awareness and prevention.
• Be a role model for your teen online. Share wisely -- Facebook is NOT a diary! Talk to your teens. If they're especially self-conscious, explain to them that being yourself is always in style, regardless of what a cyberbully says.
Remember, kindness can start with a simple smile.
Follow Sue Scheff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SueScheff