THE BLOG
10/14/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

What Happens When Kids Make Mistakes Online: A Story of Social Media Frenemies

Do you work in an elementary school and think you have a few years before you have to start worrying about cyberbullying? Are you the parent of a little one who can't possibly experience the dangers of texting and sexting since she doesn't own a cell phone yet? If you are the kind of adult who cares enough about kids and their safety to be reading this article, you instantly know that both questions are rhetorical. In today's world, with apps designed for infants and laptops marketed to preschoolers, we know that we need to prepare even our youngest kids to live safely online. What follows is an all-too-common account of innocence turned ugly for a group of under-informed digital dwellers:

Six fourth-grade classmates were together at Gigi's house for her 10th birthday sleepover party. They began their night as many party-goers do -- eating pizza, watching movies, opening presents and loading up on sweets. Gigi's parents were both actively involved in all of the activities -- helping the girls make dinner, painting nails, chit-chatting and re-arranging furniture in the basement to make room for six sleeping bags, six pillows and about three dozen stuffed animals. When the lights went out at 11 pm, the scene looked like childhood personified.

When Gigi's parents went to bed, however, adolescence washed over the girls like a storm. Spearheaded by Hailey, a girl whose older siblings helped her become more "advanced" than the rest, conversations quickly moved into boys, then liking boys, then kissing boys, then taking photos at the sleepover to show to boys. At one point, Hailey had the idea of trying on a pair of extremely short shorts. Another girl suggested she try them on without underwear. Then, a third girl took a photo on her cell phone of Hailey modeling the shorts.

Exhausted by their own silliness, the girls eventually fell asleep. In the morning, they ate pancakes and bacon, hugged their stuffed animals and acted like 10-year-olds again. They went back to school as best friends and talked about that sleepover fondly for the rest of the year.

Four years later, as 8th graders, their friendships had changed. The six girls were no longer a tight-knit group. Hailey, whose mature ways were admired when the girls were 10, was now the subject of one of middle-school's worst forms of verbal bullying: slut-shaming. Friends and frenemies alike joined forces to humiliate her publicly. This went on for months, and school had become almost unbearable for her. Hailey thought things had gotten as bad as they could get -- until they got worse.

One day, a photo was posted on Hailey's Instagram page, with the caption, "Whoring around since the fourth grade." Hailey didn't recognize the photo at first. She was hurt and confused as kids from all across her middle school seemed to know about it. She was in full-fledged denial that the photo was even real, until one of her fellow sleepover party-goers laughed and asked, "Remember that night at Gigi's? We all had so much fun!"

Indeed, that night in 4th grade did start off with childlike fun. Even when the topics started to veer off-color into boys and bras, there was still an innocence to it. The addition of technology to the mix, however, instantly changed that sleepover from a night young girls could remember fondly to an evening that Hailey would forever regret. Did the cell phone camera cause the cruelty? No. The picture-taker's intentions at the time were pure. Did the use of technology create an unanticipated, long-term risk for the girls? Absolutely!

Be assured: it was not just Hailey who was put at-risk. Although it was she who bore the brunt of intense ridicule when the photo was shared online, the girl who posted it also put herself in legal jeopardy. Having and posting photos of underage girls' private parts is a crime. In one impulsively cruel click of a mouse, a 14-year old girl who thought she was "just kidding around" found herself in serious trouble. The situation ended badly for all.

Could those girls have anticipated all of the trouble that was to come?

At nine and ten years of age, most kids are very aware of technology but still quite naïve about all of the hurtful ways in which it can be used. Well into their adolescence even, many kids remain oblivious to the legal consequences of their online actions. One of the most important things that adults can do to bring an end to cyberbullying is to teach kids about the risks of their online behavior and to give them skills to protect themselves from lasting harm. This kind of education should begin as soon as kids start using technology or spending time with others who do. Bear in mind that Hailey did not own a cell phone -- she merely attended a party with a friend who did. In this world, it is almost certain that waiting to talk about technology until kids have their own email addresses, smartphones, social media profiles and Facebook accounts is waiting way too long.

Adapted from 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents and Schools, © 2014 Signe Whitson, used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton.

Signe Whitson is a school counselor and national educator on Bullying Prevention. For more information or workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com