Protecting Kids from Social Media Gossip


Published:

When she first heard the rumor, she couldn't believe it: Why would classmates think she, a 15-year-old sophomore, had slept with a senior boy she had just gone out with a couple of times? But tongues were wagging, and so were social media sites like ask.fm, on which she received graphic questions about the nature of her relationship.

Fortunately, the people who counted most — her close friends and family — knew nothing had happened. And the rumormongers soon lost interest when they realized she wasn't perpetuating the drama with denials or counterattacks.

It could have been worse. Every day, thousands of tweens and teens are the targets of rumors, hurtful comments and bullying — an age-old problem intensified by easy access to social media sites via smartphones, tablets and computers. Social media sites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and ask.fm allow rumors to spread more quickly and with more anonymity than by word-of-mouth communication.

These rumors often leave a permanent and painful record of a child's unpopularity. Sometimes, the damage is so great, bullied or harassed students even take their own lives.

Take discipline beyond school boundaries

The period when children enter middle school and have to fit in all over again — not to mention deal with raging hormones and peer pressure — is often when rumors and harassment become a problem. It's also when kids typically have freer access to cellphones, smartphones, tablets and other digital media devices. This time period calls for heightened vigilance.

"Our kids are good kids, but they were doing or saying things online that were shocking," says Jamie Brooks, principal of Community House Middle School in Charlotte. Brooks and her staff learned this the hard way after two students created fake Twitter accounts: one in the principal's name and the other in an assistant principal's name. Both accounts featured crude, inappropriate tweets and attracted many of the school's students as followers.

This incident prompted the creation of a "Teens and Technology" workshop for parents as well as a program for students to emphasize that bullying or harassment committed off-campus using private digital devices is still subject to the school's disciplinary policy. "When you threaten somebody who goes to this school on Instagram, it becomes my business," Brooks says.

Brooks is referring to the policy that Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford County school systems all have in place that permits school officials to get involved in online, off-campus harassment if it has the potential to interfere with a student's ability to learn or be safe in school.

Since most online rumor-spreading or harassment is perpetuated using personal digital devices, it behooves parents to monitor their child's phone, computer, tablet or iPod. This is easier said than done, however, as more than 200 apps allow young people to hide their text records and social media accounts from parents. Learning this shocked parents who attended a workshop put on by Brooks' younger, media-savvy teachers. So far, Brooks says, parents have responded enthusiastically to the workshops and the consensus is that fewer students are being harassed on social media sites.

Set social media limits

One way to reduce the likelihood of your child becoming an online rumor victim is to ensure that she limits Facebook friends and Twitter followers to people she knows well, and to advise her not to friend or follow anyone she doesn't know. She should also block Snapchat requests from unfamiliar user names, since this site can be an avenue for contact from predators and bullies. Younger, more vulnerable kids should steer clear of ask.fm, a site where anonymous users can post questions to any account holder's page. Often these "questions" are really statements, most of which are rude, inappropriate or downright vicious.

You can even go a step further. "If the digital environment is unhealthy, take them off," says Brenda Elliott, executive director of Student Services for Guilford County Schools. "Be sure that (social media) isn't the only way they are being affirmed as a good person," she says. "Every child should feel valued, so help them find a group or club that interests them as a way to make friends and build self-worth."

If you're dealing with an older teen, cutting the digital chord may be harder and sometimes impractical. Your teen daughter might need a cellphone in case her car breaks down or she experiences other emergencies.

Parents can and should keep communication lines open, know the names of their kids' friends and maintain a discreet online presence. For example, you can ask to friend or follow your son on Facebook, but "lurk" instead of make comments or retweet his tweets. Also know your child's login and passwords for social media accounts.

Encourage transparency and accountability

One of the best ways to reduce social-media fueled rumors and harassment is to create a zero-tolerance policy in schools and at home. For example, students at Community House Middle School and other schools that have taken the same proactive approach know their comments, tweets and other social media activities are probably being monitored by teachers and parents, so they're less likely to use inappropriate language or make hurtful remarks about another student.

School leaders can also insist that students be accountable for their actions, whether online or in person. Guilford County's Elliott says she applauds a principal in her district who recently demoted the captain of the school's varsity cheerleading squad for being mean and hurtful to another cheerleader. Her message to the student body? "Mean plus cute does not equal popular," Elliott says.

Since students who spread rumors about and harass other kids don't live in a vacuum, parents can do their part to help. "You can set an example by not gossiping or spreading rumors at home," says Crystal Reardon, WCPSS director of counseling.

Reardon advises parents who discover that their child is acting inappropriately online to act decisively, even if it means confiscating their digital devices. "The statement I always give parents is that until your children are old enough to handle the consequences of their decisions, you need to make decisions for them," she says.

Suzanne Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three

Ways to Prevent and Address Social Media Harassment

-          Monitor and/or set maximum privacy protections on your child's social media accounts.

-          Discourage the use of sites like ask.fm, which are less about communicating than they are about titillating.

-          Warn kids not to allow "friends" or "followers" they don't know.

-          Explain to kids that disclosing highly personal information on social media sites could come back to bite them.

-          Make sure your child knows that cyberbullying is against state law and targeting classmates — even while off-campus — can result in consequences at school.

-          Encourage your child to tell you if he or she is the target of online rumors or harassment. If the perpetrator is a classmate, contact the principal or another administrator.

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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
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Farmers markets are essential to the livelihood of farmers and food producers and are exempt from the Governor's Stay at Home Order (page 6). Farmers markets offer an efficient way for residents to...

Cost: free

Where:
Holly Springs Cultural Center
300 W. Ballentine St.
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Farmers Market Coordinator
Telephone: 919-567-4010
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Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
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PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Must register in advance. Space is limited. Parents, bring your...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
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PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Parents, bring your child to class with you. Children 10 years...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
Website »

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Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
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Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
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Live online classes for kids - FREE! Kids and families can join our online classes from home while school is out. Our special guests teach kids about art, medicine, music, cooking, science and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online at your Home
265 Cambridge Ave #60923
Palo Alto, NC  94306
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Sponsor: ActivityHero
Telephone: 800-437-6125
Contact Name: Mabelle
Website »

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Taco ’Bout Good Food! Zambrero Opens in Durham Get ready to have your world guac’ed! Zambrero, Australia’s largest Mexican franchise, is opening its first Durham location on June 13! ...

Cost: Varies

Where:
University Hill, Durham NC
3109 Shannon Road, #102
Durham, NC  27707
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Telephone: 910-239-2316
Contact Name: Susie Deatherage
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Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

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The 16th Annual (Virtual) Beaver Queen Pageant, Beavers in the Stream! The Beaver Queen Pageant is the Triangle’s own special mix of folly, pageantry, and humor. Contestants take on beaver...

Cost: free

Where:
Online
, NC


Sponsor: Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
Telephone: 919-423-1502
Contact Name: Rachel Cohn
Website »

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Triangle Restaurant Week (January 20-26, 2020) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence designed to incorporate the premier Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding area restaurants....

Cost: $15-$35

Where:
Participating Restaurants
, NC


Sponsor: Triangle Blvd
Telephone: 919-673-5784
Website »

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We invite all Triangle youth between the ages of 8 thru 17 with a sincere interest in the Performance Art of Magic to join Magic Youth Raleigh! This youth program teaches magic history and theory,...

Cost: $35 per Student

Where:
New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
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The Beaver Queen Pageant is the Triangle’s own special mix of folly, pageantry, and humor. Contestants take on beaver personalities and compete for the title of Beaver Queen with their fashion,...

Cost: free

Where:
Online
, NC


Sponsor: Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
Telephone: 919-698-9729
Contact Name: Rachel Cohn
Website »

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River Jam at the U.S. National Whitewater Center brings together live musical performances throughout the year to a one-of-a-kind outdoor venue, right in the middle of the world’s largest...

Cost: $6

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Contact Name: Jenny Hill
Website »

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