The Internet is arguably the most indispensable tool in communication, but it has a dark side that many parents don’t know about.
Humans can be immeasurably cruel, and it’s not like we have to arrive at adulthood first: the impulse to be selfish, knock out the competition, and even to fight, is a built-in survival technique we have honed as a species since the beginning of our existence.
Conversely, if we did not have an equally ferocious capacity for love, we would not exist today. We are mammals; we require connection and nurturing in order to develop into functioning individuals. Both of these sides are amplified when it comes to the worldwide web.
Our modern world has made our base impulses become more abstract. Anyone who still plays that old tape, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” has never been the target of a cyber-bully. And that is only one way in which our children can be hurt online.
A huge part of this problem is actually our own resistance to facing the unpleasant but no less real threat of online predation.
Our children gain more access and spend more time on social media, thus experience more exposure to trolls, stalkers, catfish, and con organizations than ever before. We risk endangering our young people when we do not address this increasingly urgent issue.
So let’s define the terms and explore the facts. We need to talk about how we can empower our young people so they can prevent dangerous online interactions.
1. Online bullying vs. catfishing vs. trolling. So for starters, online bullying is when one person or a few members of a social group start singling out one person and denigrating them. Catfishing is when someone poses as someone else and tries to form a relationship with one person. Trolling is when an anonymous user tries to pick a fight or start an argument in a comments section or around some particular hot topic. Note that while each of these is a little different, they can all become harassment.
2. It’s more common than you would think. 90 percent of social media-using teens that have witnessed online cruelty say they’ve ignored mean behavior on social media, and 35 percent say they’ve seen it regularly. One million children were harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook during 2011.
3. 58 percent of teens don’t see a problem with posting photos and personal information online. Kids often don’t understand how their information can be used against them until it’s too late. One study also indicated that young men who were questioning their orientation were more likely to engage in risky behavior on the Internet, i.e., talking about sex with strangers.
And when it comes to the lasting consequences of posting personal or inappropriate material online, it’s pretty clear they don’t understand. An essential part of the conversation about being active on the web is the concern that their history will follow them into adulthood. For example, when teens go on to apply for college, or for their first job, it is likely that potential employees or recruiters will Google them.
4. Half the time, teens don’t report it to their parents when they have been harassed. 80 percent of teens have a cell phone, and so if most of them have experienced mean comments, rumors, or embarrassing photos posted publicly, this is certainly a conversation worth having. If your kids are bullied online, encourage them to take a screenshot and disengage. It’s very difficult for adolescents to do, but they fuel the fire by staying in the conversation.
5. The whole game of social approval has changed. Teens have developed a real-time hierarchy through social media. For example, kids will post a photo to Instagram and literally determine their social standing by the responses they get from their friends. This American Life actually did a program on this that is both unnerving and fascinating: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/573/status-update.
6. Many teens admit that they don’t think hurtful language online is the same as saying it in person. However, for kids who are getting picked on by their peers, the effects are very painful. It’s so critical to emphasize that there are real-world consequences for mean-spirited behavior, period. Cyberbullying can contribute to low self-esteem, depression, and suicidal tendencies in teens.
7. Catfish use some telltale tricks. Once you know what to look for, you will start to see a pattern. If you or your teen is interacting with someone that doesn’t have a third party verification for their identity, ask yourself these questions: Are they too good to be true, like model pretty, incredibly rich, immediately eager to know all your personal details, and saying all the right things? Danger! Also look out for “no webcam,” traumatic life events that intend to inspire sympathy, and of course, asking for money.
There are entire organizations out there with the sole intent of creating relationships to suck money out of innocent people. They pose as a friend and spend hours grooming their targets, establishing trust over a period of months. As our teens move into the romantic arena, they should know that the Internet is rife with people who want to play on their emotions and manipulate them.
By starting this ongoing conversation now, studies also show that we can influence our children’s behavior when it comes to the web. Parents who have a good sense of what their kids are actually doing online are better set up to protect their kids, and those same kids are more likely to notify their parents if they have been the victim of inappropriate behavior or approached by strangers.
The Internet is a remarkable tool, but it is also a haven for predators, and the sooner our kids get hip to that fact, the better. It’s also a good reminder that we need to practice responsible behavior ourselves when it comes to interacting online.