The wealth of technology available to our children's generation - from texting to email to social networking sites - has caused cyber-bullying to reach an all-time high. Read on for tips on how parents can recognize and prevent cyber-bullying.
Meet my 13-year-old sister, Carrie: One of her favorite pastimes is video-chatting with boys, and her cell phone recently logged a pretty standard 2,000-text-message month. Her statistics, though they may appear staggering, are on par with those of many tweens, and often even younger children.
While communication via text and e-mail has become pervasive for this generation, it also presents its own set of parenting challenges - and some can be downright scary. Sure, science has narrowed the boundaries of time zones and allowed us the luxury of, literally, having the world at our fingertips - but that means, with cell phones in hand, the world at large is at our kids' technological fingertips, too.
National headlines continue to broadcast case after case of cyber-bullying. The perpetrators? Children. And according to Randi Shafton, co-founder of the tween/teen empowerment project www.Girl360.net, 43 percent of children are exposed to cyber-bullying (per the U.S State Department, this is an all-time high). Only one in 10 tell their parents.
When I was in middle school, drama happened in the lunch room, not in cyberspace. Bullies roamed the schoolyard. The computer, though, is the playground of my sister's generation. And as such there is often little escape for the target of a cyberbully, whose taunts (often anonymous) can follow a victim anywhere he or she goes.
"There's no accountability these days," says Shafton. "Kids don't understand the depth of their bullying the way kids used to when their interactions were all face to face."
NY Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who introduced anti-bullying legislation in June that would require the code of conduct in every school to specifically identify and prohibit both conventional and cyber-bullying, says: "Kids do better in school when they don't have to worry about being bullied." New York State, she adds, received a grade of "F" from Bully Police USA, an advocacy group that assigns a letter grade to states based on the strength of their bullying laws.
Bridge the Digital Divide
Some lingo you might hope not to see:
CTN Can't talk now
KPC Keeping parents clueless
MBS Mom behind shoulder
MOS Mother over shoulder
NMJC Nothing much, just chilling
OYO On your own
PAW Parents are watching
PM Private message
RME Rolling my eyes
SH^ Shut up
9 Parent is watching
Some you may want to add to your lexicon:
AEAP As early as possible
CYR MA Call your mother
EOD End of discussion
LMK Let me know
MU Miss you
PTB Please text back
RUOK Are you ok?
143 I love you
459 I love you
Before we allow our children to use devices such as cell phones and computers, we must be certain that we know how to use them.
"Getting up to speed is key," says clinical psychologist Joel Haber. "When we think about cell phone use, there's a digital divide between parents and kids. It's their language. Many times it's not natural for the parents."
Haber suggests learning to speak their language. Parents should educate themselves on the technology - and the lingo (see the "TXT Decoder" box at right). When we understand things, we are much better equipped to handle them, and as the cell phone has essentially replaced communication as we know it for teens and tweens, closing this divide between parent and child is crucial. Understanding the ins and outs of online monitoring and using parental controls is also key. Did you know that even Xbox offers parental control options?
Different Technology, Different Rules
Although technology permeates the culture at a very young age, it is important to remember that our children are just that: children. They need guidance from strong, authoritative role models.
"Research has shown that young people believe that humiliating each other online is a normal part of their lives," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes, the book that the film "Mean Girls" was mirrored after. "It's the job of adults to say to young people, 'Just because it's normal doesn't make it right.' "
"'Kids will be kids' is the wrong emphasis," agrees Shafton. "Kids need adult help. They don't know how to resolve these issues alone."
It's relatively easy for one kid to intimidate another with a 146-character insult via text message - just hit send. Often a cyberbully isn't even fully aware of the magnitude of how her communications can hurt; certainly, she doesn't see the recipient's pain or facial expressions the way a bully engaging in face-to-face intimidation would. Convenience has masked the reality, de-emphasizing the consequences of children's actions.
You cannot assume that your child will be able to make wise decisions while online. Just as we teach kids to read and to ride a bike, we must teach them how to be responsible with technology. Trust your parental instincts about whether your child is - or isn't - ready for more freedom.
Click here for signs your child may be the victim of a cyber bully
Setting clear boundaries for each technological medium should be the goal. Allow, for instance, a child to get a Facebook account, but suggest that you be friends with one another on it. Perhaps don't allow a personal computer to sit on a desk in a kid's bedroom; but do consider allowing your child to bring the family laptop into his room for limited periods of time, with clear usage restrictions (homework during the week, say, or social networking one hour per weekend day). An open line of communication plus the implicit understanding that there may be consequences to inappropriate actions allows children both freedom and the necessary discipline. "Technology is a privilege, not a right," emphasizes Haber.
Even the most well-meaning parents can find themselves contributing to the problem. "We can complain about our child sending 3,000 texts a month, but what are we doing?" asks Wiseman.
Blackberrys and iPhones are wielded by people on every corner. If we are sending 3,000 texts a month or texting at dinnertime in front of our kids, they may simply be mimicking our behavior.
"People want to blame the bullies a lot of the time, but more importantly we need to look to our society. What are we modeling? Are we showing kindness and respect? Do we race across the street to beat a yellow light, or do we stop and wait?" asks Shafton.
By setting boundaries for ourselves, we are better equipped to set appropriate boundaries for our children, to help teach them right from wrong. Pay attention to your family conversation at the dinner table; stop consulting the mobile every ten minutes; and encourage interaction. And take your child's phone away at night, suggests Wiseman, so he or she can have some real privacy. Wiseman urges parents to be proactive, regardless of the moody ramifications: "It's okay for your child to be angry at you," she says. "I get a lot of questions from parents who say they cannot take their child's phone away at night because their child is going to get so angry that it's not worth it. It is worth it."
|Check out www.tweenangels.org, where 7- to 12-year-old "experts" shed light on what kids are doing online, and offer advice on helping to make the Internet safer.