Bullyproof Your Child this Summer
The end of the past traditional school year was marred by several high-profile suicides that seem to have been caused by online bullying. School officials were criticized because they hadn't taken action to stop the harassment. During the summer, most kids have even more time for social networking, making it that much more important for parents to find out about their children's digital world.
Keeping kids from becoming victims of online harassment is a legitimate concern, given a recent study from the Cyberbullying Research Center that shows victims of cyberbullying are more likely to contemplate suicide. But protecting victims is only part of the equation. Parents need to help kids create and participate in online networks that reinforce what's best about young people, not what's worst.
Unfortunately, online communities take their cue from offline culture, which often is awash with meanness. Political talk show hosts regularly demean those who disagree with them. Reality TV shows thrive on putting people in humiliating situations. Music and movies often revolve around violence or the threat of violence. In this context, it's not surprising that young people are confused about how to create rewarding relationships.
Summer is a good time to regroup. How can you help your child develop the warm, supportive friendships, both online and off? Here are some suggestions:
* Look in the mirror. You are the most important role model for your children, so a little self-examination is in order. How do you behave towards others? How do you talk to your child when you're angry? How do you argue with your spouse? What do you say about neighbors, politicians or opinions you don't like? If your children see you behaving respectfully towards others — even under trying circumstances — they will have a repertoire of strategies to use in on- and offline relationships.
* Brush up on the basics. Comcast and McAfee have teamed up to produce two succinct and up-to-date family Internet contracts that cover basic rules for safe and responsible online fun. Even the most Web-savvy parents and kids will benefit from reviewing these rules. One contract is for teens and one for younger children. Each includes pledges for both parents and kids. Find them at http://alturl.com/okdk.
* Strengthen offline networks. Help kids develop face-to-face friendships. Look for settings in which kids have fun that doesn't involve belittling other people. Pay particular attention to the tone set by adult leaders, including coaches, camp counselors and youth group leaders. Be sure they model the kind of fairness, decency and respect you want from your kids.
* Diversify online networks. Facebook still dominates, but some teens are migrating to other social networks, some of which bring out the worst in kids. Formspring, for example, has garnered a lot of attention because it lets people post anonymous answers to questions, a practice that seems designed to encourage viciousness. Fortunately, there are also social networks specifically designed to encourage creativity or community service. Encourage your teen to investigate sites like www.crowdrise.com, where teens to network for good causes.
* Monitor as needed. The best monitoring technique is a conversation with your child about what he or she is doing online. If you're worried that your child isn't being candid about online activities, consider subscribing to Safetyweb (www.safetyweb.com), a new service that monitors every crevice of the social web and alerts you to what's being said about your child as well as what your child says about others.
* Teach anti-bully techniques. Despite the many programs that promise to eradicate bullying, the problems seem to proliferate. School psychologist Izzy Kalman believes that's because adults are too quick to label one child as the aggressor and another as the victim. His website, www.Bullies2Buddies.com, includes practical suggestions about how to help kids become a force for good by defusing nastiness in others.
* Reiterate old rules. Don't worry about sounding like your own parents. The Golden Rule definitely applies online. It's also worth repeating another old-fashioned chestnut: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Simply following this rule would eliminate most of the hurtful remarks about everything from bad-hair days to weight and sexuality.
* Review safety procedures. In the real world, people avoid people who are mean to them and report those who are a danger to others. Reputable social networks make it easy to do the same. Facebook, for example, has a Safety Center with detailed information about everything from deleting offensive wall posts to privacy settings for users who are under 18. Review the contents with your child at www.facebook.com/help/?safety.
* Learn what's legal. Teen Cyberbullying Investigated is an eye-opening report about real teens who got into real trouble because they misused digital photos, a cell phone or a social networking site. Written by a retired judge and available from Free Spirit Press, this informative guide will help both parents and teens understand how the law is evolving to cover online behavior.
It would be nice to think that summer could be a vacation from problems like cyberbullying. Since that's not a realistic option, parents can take advantage of the extra time with their kids to find out what's happening in their online lives. Then they can help kids enjoy the latest social networking trends without abandoning the old-fashioned family values of respect, fair play and kindness.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.