Keeping Kids Cyber-Safe
By Dan Gordon
Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM
Bullying is bad enough when it takes place in school. It can be even more malevolent on the Internet, where attacks spread instantly everywhere. Here are some tips for parents looking to keep their kids from harm online.
Lean more about how to prevent and protect kids against all forms of bullying at the government site, www.stopbullying.gov.
Schoolyard bullying has been a concern for as long as we've had schools. But before the Internet, smartphones and social media, there was never any danger that mean comments, vicious rumors or disclosures and compromising pictures intended to be private could so easily reach a large audience—or go viral. Now social media has introduced a new wrinkle to an age-old and potentially deadly problem.
"Cyberbullying" is no different from in-person bullying, notes Jaana Juvonen Ph.D. '89, a UCLA developmental psychologist and nationally recognized expert on the subject. "With either type, there is an imbalance of power and unwanted aggression or hostility, typically repeated, that leads victims to feel alone and helpless to stop the behavior," she says. But digital technology raises the stakes.
When practically everyone in the school has a smartphone and is connected via Facebook, a single ill-intended post can inflict substantial harm. With the ease of hitting the "share" button on one's phone, a confidential text, picture or video is weaponized.
"The anonymity can make it easier for kids to pass along a message without feeling guilty about it," says Juvonen. "They may feel less compelled to step in and defend the victim. One could also hypothesize that in the electronic sphere, the victim's feelings of helplessness and anxiety are worse, because you never know for sure who saw whatever was said about you."
As researchers struggle to keep pace with the fast-changing nature of technology and its uses, data on electronic bullying are hard to pin down. But there's no doubt that it's a significant issue among adolescents; in a 2008 study by Juvonen and colleagues, nearly three in four teens reported having been bullied online at least once over a 12-month period.
So how can parents protect their kids? Juvonen offers the following advice:
Talk About It
Mobile devices and Facebook accounts have become critical rites of passage for children, and parents shouldn't let such moments pass without discussions of what might happen. "Kids tend to see technology as their own sphere, so when a situation comes up they try to handle it themselves," Juvonen says. "They assume that if their parents don't understand the technology, they won't be able to help." While parents would do well to educate themselves about electronic communications, above all they should impress on their teens that not understanding the nuances of social media or the language of texting doesn't mean they are unable to help.
Don't Cut Them Off
In her study on cyberbullying, Juvonen found that one of the most common reasons given by teens for not telling their parents when they were being bullied online was a fear of losing computer or smartphone privileges. With the ease of hitting the "share" button on one's phone, a confidential text, picture or video can be weaponized. "That's often the first reaction of the parent when something terrible happens, but it's not necessarily wise," Juvonen says. "Electronic communication is one important way for youth to interact with their friends when they can't easily meet them in person. If parents want to resort to this strategy to help avoid negative online experiences, the strategy may backfire: Youth who are not connected electronically may feel left out."
Parents should also maintain access for themselves when it comes to their children's electronic communications, Juvonen says. Allowing your teen to use the computer behind closed doors might not be such a good idea. "Even if it's just seeing that the child quickly changes screens as the parent enters the room, it gives the parent the chance to say, 'Hey, what's going on?'" Juvonen notes.
Heed the Warning Signs
Since many teens are reluctant to confide in their parents when they're being mistreated online, parents need to be alert for signs of trouble. Does your child seem unusually obsessed with checking the computer or phone? When combined with other signs—mood changes, reluctance to go to school, physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches—this can be a red flag.
Take the Long View
Teens tend to be shortsighted: "They take silly or revealing pictures and share them with their friends, never imagining that one day they might not have the same relationship, or that these friends might not be trustworthy, and that these pictures might go viral," Juvonen says. Parents should stress that any photo, video, text or IM, no matter how private it seems, has the potential to become public.
What Happens Off Campus Doesn't Stay Off Campus
Many school administrators contend that they can concern themselves only with bullying that takes place on their grounds; since most electronic bullying takes place after school hours, they remain on the sidelines when it comes to policies, prevention efforts and discipline. But Juvonen argues that if the previous night's electronic bullying at the hands of a classmate is keeping a child from participating in the classroom, focusing on schoolwork, or even attending school, that is the school's business. She believes administrators can find ways to incorporate electronic bullying into anti-bullying policies, but they might need a push. "Parents are the most valuable advocates for their kids, and they play a critical role here," she says.
Doing the Right Thing
Conversations about electronic bullying should also cover potential scenarios in which the child is either fanning the flames or simply standing by as a peer is mistreated. "One thing we probably don't do enough of is talk to our children about not just protecting themselves but also not boosting the power of the bully—and, in fact, stepping in when appropriate to support those who are vulnerable," says Juvonen.