Nearly 90% of American teenagers have daily computer access, and middle schoolers are frequently seen with cell phones, and posting on Facebook and YouTube. However, few parents have a complete picture of how their children are using the web; let alone how they respond to negativity occurring online. In most cases, parents aren’t even aware their children need assistance managing online relationships, let alone that some of these sites require age verification their children must be falsifying in order to join. Further complicating this aspect of parenting, most parents have not been shown the value of guidance regarding developmental assets, unless provided information by a human services organization after an incident. Many parents may not even be aware of how they can protect and secure healthy development in their children.
The first thing to note about youth on the web, like adults, the screen disinhibits them. They feel invisible, and therefore aren’t concerned about the content of their posts, disapproval of others or the damage they might do to others. When our youth see posts and blogs appearing to discount courtesy and polite manners, they assume this behavior is acceptable to all and begin to model the same. In order to develop strong positive decision making and resistance skills, its important parents supervise early online interactions, perhaps surfing the web together and discussing the messages they see, and highlighting the safest websites to explore and interact. Another means of supporting an “internet newbie” would be to place the computer in a family area of your home so a child’s activities can be monitored with greater ease. Many media safety experts stress the best way to help your child navigate the Internet is to keep that activity in the family room or kitchen, rather than privacy of their bedroom. We hold our children’s hand as we cross the street, why would we consider letting them cross the virtual divide alone?
For many children the Internet is a source of great social pleasure. As communities and families become more physically distanced, the web lets us maintain these vital relationships. Social networks give us access to our friends 24/7, however, that access must be managed so it doesn’t become an addictive behavior inhibiting face-to-face social skills, or preventing other healthy activities from being included in social interactions. Having constructive use of our time is an extremely important developmental behavior that both parents and children must address when establishing online guidelines. Limiting or scheduling online time isn’t a punishment – rather a reminder to balance our life with a variety of social activities.
Since so many on the Internet engage in destructive dialogue, it is nearly impossible to feel as if the virtual community values youth. We need to consider this environment part of our neighborhood, and recognize each of us have a responsibility when online to consider the impact of our actions and words have on youth, especially those with poorly developed resistance skills or are lured into engaging in hate speech. Whether you are a blogger, poster or web administrator we all play a role in developing the future generations. Our behavior is the first part of the environmental press they experience when coming on line. Until legislation catches up with technology, youth who are simply making mistakes in social exercises can be found guilty of felonious crimes; something we adults recognized is rarely the intent of the perpetrator. Vermont stood up for the youth in its community when passing Bullying Prevention Policy into law in May 2004, and communities across the country are enacting laws to assist teachers and respond to children’s emotional crisis’ that result from cyber bullying.
Oprah was famous for repeating on her show that children everywhere need to be validated. She reminds us that if we as parents don’t do it, someone else will; and in the world of the web, those who would cover our absence may have ulterior motives. For our children to have a positive identity on the web, it is first important for them to have a positive identity in person. During the tween and teen years, when social status is developing more rapidly than acne, self-image can make or break the back of many a child. Parents and other engaged adults need to be aware of these activities so as to turn them into “teachable moments”. Since many teens are reluctant to share details regarding online harassment in fear of Internet restrictions, it is important that families establish boundaries and expectations that both provide freedom and conduit for open communication. This is best done by including stipulations regarding online transparency with the first online experience, which we already determined should be guided with a conscientious adult.
There are few opportunities short of video chats that allow real time interaction on the web. Most conflicts are one sided with little or no direct interaction between the parties. If these conflicts come from issues unresolved from personal contact, the word and images can be even more damaging to the bully’s target because a much larger audience can participate or silently stand by. Peaceful conflict resolution isn’t even considered when everyone is adding his or her comments to screen, it starts as a joke, or it’s an anonymous accomplice. Most children sympathize with the victim however few rarely attempt to intervene and stop the assault. This suggests the voyeurs understand the damage cyber bullying can do; however they lack the ability to lend positive peer influence to the situation.
The impact of cyber bullying on the youth community is truly paralyzing our educators. While most of the harmful messages and encounters occur outside of the school after hours, they undoubtedly bring negative drama into the classroom. Some schools have taken the position of banning certain Internet sites at school will help eliminate cyber bullying outside. Unfortunately this policy then prohibits using those sites to teach digital citizenship. Just as we are encouraging our children to engage in critical thinking in the classroom, we need to be inviting them to do the same online by providing them guided opportunities to discern unsavory sites from more welcoming information and discuss the ramifications and digital dangers associated with misusing the Internet.
So what’s a parent to do when the world comes in through a computer screen and disturbs the peace in our home and heart? Lash out? Unplug it? No, we must prepare our children to live in a virtual world, as this technology nor the undesired conduct is going away. We must grow a resilient generation capable of using this incredible tool the same way a doctor uses their knowledge – do no harm. Identifying our children’s advocates: teachers, coaches, school counselors, can envelope you and your child with like-minded people who will reinforce the positive messages we are trying to impart. Enlisting other parents, especially those of a bully, demonstrates a community concern for cyber safety, and invites the family most in need of assistance into the fold without shame or blame. Only a collective energy will be able to create an environment where all voices are valued and honored. Only a collaborative effort can develop complete and content children during this rapidly developing computer age.