The horribly sad suicide of Florida tween Rebecca Ann Sedwick this past week was another example of the worst possible consequences of relentless bullying both on and offline. It's unfortunately an all too familiar heartbreaking story involving mean girls, cyber-bullying, school officials who didn't really know how to intervene, and a parent who did everything she could to prevent this from happening. But, the media's focus on social media apps in this case detracts from the bigger conversation about kids' behavior online, and what we as parents must teach our kids about life on and offline.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely think social media and mobile tech can amplify the effects of cyber-bullying, and make it harder and harder for kids to escape bullying. Whereas kids used to be able to come home, or go to an after school activity, and leave the school bullies behind, social media photos and texts follow a kid from place to place. Even changing schools has less positive impact since so much bullying can live right in the palm of a kid's hand via their smart phone or iPod Touch. BUT there are key points missing from the reporting of this story, and in my opinion blaming the apps, specifically KiK Messenger and ask.fm, and the technology is diverting us from the real issues.
First of all, there was no mention in this article that at 12-years-old it was not legal for this girl to have a KiK messenger and ask.fm account. That is because of COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) which prohibits companies from collecting personal information about kids under 13 without express verifiable parental consent. Most companies don't want to deal with that legal headache -- and they want to collect as much info as possible about their users -- so they are NOT COPPA-compliant. But of course kids know how to easily lie to get on these social media apps. All you have to do is scroll down and select the right birth year. Most parents don't even know that Instagram and these other social media apps aren't allowed for kids under 13. They've been so focused on Facebook as some boogeyman of the web that they haven't noticed that kids are on apps -- and Facebook is just not one of them. Though this young girl also had a Facebook page that was shut down. So she was very immersed in social media -- and that is very common.
Parents who think that shutting down a Facebook page is going to be enough, or commenters who said that kids just shouldn't have smart phones and that would solve the problem, are massively missing the point. THIS is our kids' world. They are online. They might not have a smart phone, but they may have an iPod touch, a tablet or computer. Being connected is not just about a phone. And in the end what we are left with is a generation that needs to have the tools to manage social media responsibly and safely.
And that takes me to the next big omission -- where are the parents of the girls using these apps and social media as weapons?
At the core of this issue is the freedom that kids (and adults) feel to be outrageously cruel online because hiding behind the screen has a way of emboldening people to bring out their worst. And tweens and teens who are already in a narcissistic haze of hormones and myopia are particularly susceptible to pushing these boundaries via social media (and in real life too.) That doesn't mean we should ban social media, it means there has to be real discussion about how to use it. There needs to be consequences for the bad behavior online -- and not arrests after something horrible happens -- but parents who are monitoring their children's online behavior not just for being bullied but for being the bully too.
I've written extensively about how parents can and should monitor their kids' online and social media use, and as the co-founder of KidzVuz -- a site made expressly for kids under 13 -- I see every day the kind of behavior that kids try to get away with and the information they try to put out there. They desperately want to connect and share. We give them a safe space to do that, but the truth is they see the huge popularity of Instagram and YouTube and it's beyond exciting to them. They don't get that those sites aren't going to moderate for inappropriate content or bullying, they are on their own.
There are so many emotional and maturity level reasons they shouldn't be on these apps and sites in the first place, but they are -- and at 13 they are allowed to be legally. A 13-year-old isn't exactly the epitome of a careful, thoughtful person. So even if you are shutting your kids out of social media until they are "legally" allowed to be there, they will have NO idea of what to do or what the ramifications of their behavior will be when they turn 13, unless you teach them.
The most important take-away parents must learn is not to just monitor but to participate. Have the same social media apps as your kid, connect your iTunes account, friend them on everything, and most of all if your kid is the bully shut THEIR account down. Take away THEIR phone. Most of all, don't be afraid to parent. You would never say you don't want to know the friends your child hangs out with every day or going to parties with, but parents turn a blind eye to the "friends" online all the time. There is no distinction between the online and offline world for kids -- and parents need to respect and understand that in order to parent Generation Z.