By Carolyn Jabs
Over the past several years, news of teen suicides seemingly spurred by online bullying have marred prom and graduation season. School officials have taken the brunt of the blame for not stepping in to stop the harassment. When school lets out next month, however, kids will have even more time for social networking — and parents will become the ones directly responsible for intervening to stop the mean behavior that has become epidemic online.
Obviously, most parents worry most about how to keep their own kids from becoming victims of online harassment. That’s a very legitimate concern, given a recent study from the Cyberbullying Research Center showing that victims of cyberbullying are more likely to contemplate suicide. Still, protecting victims is only part of the equation. Parents must expand their vision to help kids participate in online networks that reinforce what’s best about young people — and not what’s worst.
Unfortunately, online communities take their cue from an offline culture awash with meanness. Reality TV shows thrive on putting people in humiliating situations. Political talk show hosts regularly demean those who disagree with them. 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.
The approach of summer is a good time to regroup and think about how you can help your child develop a warm, supportive network both online and off. Here are some suggestions on how to do just that.
Assess your own behavior
You, of course, are your child’s most important role model, so a little self-examination is in order. How do you talk to your kids when you’re angry or argue with your spouse? What do you say about neighbors or public figures whose opinions you don’t like? If your kids see you behaving respectfully toward others — even under trying circumstances — they will have a repertoire of strategies to use in both on- and offline relationships.
Strengthen offline networks
Summer is an ideal time to help kids develop face-to-face friendships. Look for settings in which kids have offline fun that doesn’t involve belittling others. In particular, be sure that adult leaders, including coaches and camp counselors, model the kind of fairness, decency and respect you want from your kids.
Monitor Kids' Web use
The best monitoring technique is a conversation with your child about what he is doing online. If you’re worried that he isn’t being candid with you, consider subscribing to Safetyweb.com, a 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.
Diversify online networks
Facebook still dominates, but teens are migrating to other social networks — some of which can bring out the worst in kids. Formspring, now Spring.me, garnered attention because it allowed anonymous posts, a practice that seemed to engender viciousness. Fortunately, there are also networks specifically designed to promote creativity and civic-mindedness — sites like Crowdrise.com, which encourages teens to network for good causes.
Teach anti-cyberbullying techniques
Despite the many programs that promise to eradicate bullying, the problem proliferates. 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 Bullies2Buddies.com includes practical suggestions about how to help kids defuse nastiness and become a force for good.
Review safety procedures
In the real world, people avoid those who are mean to them and report anyone who poses a danger to others. Reputable social networks make it easy to do the same thing. Facebook, for example, has a Safety Center with detailed info about everything from deleting offensive wall posts to privacy settings for under-18 users. Review the contents at Facebook.com/safety.
These tactics can help parents teach kids to enjoy the latest social networking trends without abandoning old-fashioned family values of respect, fair play and kindness.
Mom-of-three Carolyn Jabs, MA, writes about families and the Internet at Growing-up-online.com.