Today many in the Tampa Bay area will be remembering Rebecca Sedwick through vigils, classroom and home discussions, and of course, news reports on teens and bullying. One year ago today, Rebecca committed suicide after reportedly being bullied both on and offline for more than a year.
These stories seem to be far too common these days and I am often asked how parents can help prevent bullying, especially online.
Walking the fine line of respecting your child's online privacy while looking out for their well-being is a challenge that our parents didn't exactly have.
I always use the analogy that letting your child "play" unsupervised online is the equivalent of letting them loose in Grand Central Station and encouraging them to talk with anyone they see and hop on any train that strikes their fancy.
At the same time, you have to let your kids make mistakes and learn so that they build confidence and competence in the real world. We know that their judgment center (their prefrontal cortex) doesn't fully develop until their mid to late 20s. So, how can you expect them to have the judgment of an adult?
What you can do is create a relationship of openness and sharing without the harsh judgment, criticism and shaming that cuts off communication between parents and kids. Kids have to know that you are not clueless and you are there for bouncing ideas, helping them to solve problems and yes, setting firm limits when needed.
I believe that it is important for kids to know that you have access to their online world but will not be stalking them or even checking daily (creeping).
It is also important that today's parents aren't just setting rules regarding social media but that they also understand the culture and nuances of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Ask.FM, Snapchat, and more because there are new social networks popping up every day.
Not sure where to start? Here are three articles that can help:
• According to entrepreneur.com there are five new social media platforms worth taking a look at because they are new and upcoming, and thus might be the most appealing to kids.
• Commonsense Media has an info-packed article about where kids are headed now that they have left Facebook to the rest of us.
• Ten frightening things to know about Ask.fm.
The absolute most important thing to remember is, if your kids come to you with complaints that others have been mean to them either directly or indirectly online, please take them seriously.
Alternatively, you may see signs of sadness, anxiety or irritability in your child. He or she may seem sulky or not want to go to school. As you explore what might be going on, please include social media on your list of things that could be bothering your child.
Rumors spread like wildfire online -- faster than in any small town!
If it turns out that subtweeting or some other form of cyberbullying is taking place, ask them to see the messages and either take screen shots or pictures of them. Print them out so you have some concrete evidence of what is going on and help your child do some of their own problem solving by asking them how they might like to handle the situation. You should also consider talking with other parents and kids to let them know what is going on and find out if they are also having trouble.
Teach your children about appropriate etiquette online. Perhaps your child isn't the recipient of the mean side of subtweeting but is the one sending them or starting the problems. Kids learn more from what we do than what we say; so, while it is very important to teach your kids about how to conduct themselves online, it is equally important to model genuine kindness, compassion, and respect for others in your daily life.
Every school has technology policies and many of them are very strict. If the problems are related to other students at school, speaking with the principal might be the best place to start. However, if there have been threats or discussion of harm to themselves or others, you will want to call your local police or sheriff's office to get some guidance or support.
While it may be unrealistic for you to be as adept as your kids are on social media sites, it behooves you to at least learn the basics. Here are some simple steps you can take that will help:
1. Carve out some time to read about or watch YouTube videos on how these sites work and why kids are using them.
2. Create your own account and spend some time exploring. See if your kids will take you on virtual tour. Treat it the same way you would when learning and understanding any of your children's hobbies and activities so that you can talk with them about what they are doing and not be so completely in the dark. We know that you may not have been so interested in martial arts, bowling or even competitive swimming, but you learned what you needed to about it to support your kids. The same goes for social media.
3. Please install some safety software that can help protect your children when you are not there watching their screens. Check out this article for some reviews of top software and apps.
While lots of kids use their smartphones and technology for appropriate and benign purposes, the three ways that kids seem most likely to get in trouble is by sending inappropriate pictures (sexting), being mean to others by cyberbullying, and by meeting strangers. Please be aware of these risks and keep your eyes open. Kids need supervision!