By Karen Hendricks
I can’t stop thinking about the Florida teen who recently committed suicide, after being the target of cyberbullying. (Click here for the backstory from CNN News. ) There are several details about Rebecca Sedwick’s death that strike me as especially poignant.
She was apparently the victim of cyberbullying for as long as a year… this breaks my heart. The two girls arrested in the case and charged with “aggravated stalking” apparently were just the ringleaders. Police say these two girls encouraged as many as 15 additional girls to cyberbully Rebecca. This too breaks my heart and makes me wonder if things would have turned out differently if at least one of those girl’s parents had caught on to the plot. The fact that all of this happened over a boy… that too breaks my heart.
On the surface, Rebecca’s mom did all the right things: She cancelled her daughter’s Facebook account and moved her to a different middle school. According to recent news stories, the majority of the cyberbulling in this case happened, not on “mainstream” social media like Facebook and Twitter, but on other sites such as ask.fm and Kik. More about that in a second.
Social media plays a huge role in my professional life, as I work in marketing, public relations and the media. For the past year, I’ve especially enjoyed teaching “Social Media 101” classes through my local arts council. It’s always fascinating to hear what motivates people to take my classes—a four-session series. The two main reasons? Parents/grandparents want to learn how to communicate with their children/grand-children (and be educated) and small business owners see the value of navigating social media channels to promote their businesses. For the most part, we focus on all of the good that can come out of social media. It’s a joy to see parents/grandparents return to class and happily report that they’re now successfully Tweeting or exchanging Facebook messages with their loved ones. There are many positive aspects of social media.
The dark side of social media cannot be ignored, however, and I always review privacy controls and “best practices” with all social media channels, in my classes. Many schools provide seminars and speakers about bullying in general, or cyberbullying/computer safety issues. I know many parents who do their best to monitor and/or limit their teens’ social media use. But with the Rebecca Sedwick case in the news, I feel as though we need to continue to talk and raise awareness in the hopes of stopping hate from going viral and hurting one more teen.
Here are a few pieces of advice I have picked up – but please feel free to share your stories and tips below as well:
Social media can be accessed on cell phones, computers, ipods, Kindles, etc. While it’s best to set limits when these items are first introduced to your teens, it’s never too late. Set limits and make sure your teens are maintaining a healthy balance of “real life,” studying, sports/activities, family time, and socializing with friends vs. “screen time.”
Teens need help setting boundaries. Talk to your teens about what they should and should not be sharing via social media, to protect their privacy and safety. For example, I often see teens posting photos on Instagram, able to be viewed by the public, which reveal their home’s location, school name, etc. Help them set “internal privacy controls,” as well as actual privacy controls on their social media accounts. Insist on it. Again, this is best done together at the time they establish their Facebook account, for example. But it’s never too late to become tech-savvy and begin monitoring your teen later in the game.
Talk about e-language
Talk to your teen about his/her social media messages. What messages are appropriate? What type of language is appropriate? How often should he/she communicate via social media (or texting)? Does every detail of his/her life need to be shared? How do friends’ messages affect them? Is he/she offended or hurt by friends’ behavior on social media? My daughter seems to maintain a healthy perspective by saying “There’s too much drama” and “over-sharing” on most social media sites, but she focuses on the positive aspects of keeping in touch with friends by visiting them a few times a week.
Photo-sharing can be a wonderful aspect of social media, especially for your teen’s relatives and friends in far-away places. It’s a great way to stay connected. However, as previously mentioned, make sure your teen is being careful about details such as house numbers that may show up in photos. Also, stay on top of a trend that spirals out of control for many teens: posting “selfies” or self-portraits. If you see your teen posting selfies every day… talk to them and lovingly help them try to regain a healthy perspective. Actually, the over-posting of selfies isn’t a problem limited to teens… I see a lot of adults with this issue as well! One more word of caution about photos: Sometimes teens need to be more careful and vigilant about being/not being in their friends’ photos. Once a friend posts a photo, your teen has little control over it. If he/she doesn’t like the photo, your teen can “untag” him/herself. Also, group photos often hurt other teens who later see they weren’t invited or included.
Know who your teen’s “friends” are. In fact, YOU should be one of their friends at all times. My feeling is, if your teen doesn’t want to agree to this, then he/she shouldn’t be on social media. As a compromise, there could be another adult in your teen’s life that you might entrust to “keep an eye” on his/her social media use. Additionally, look out for your teen’s friends if they connect with you via social media. Be eyes and ears for their parents and let them know if you see anything suspicious.
Talk to your teen up front about cyberbullying, which is defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” It’s hatred that goes viral. (And it’s not limited to teens. Sadly, there are many adults who model this atrocious behavior on-line as well.) Encourage your teens to tell you, or a trusted adult, teacher, pastor, etc, about anything suspicious.
Keep an e-list
Know which social media channels your teen is using. As in the Rebecca Sedwick case, there are many other forms of social media other than Facebook or Twitter. Learn about Snapchat, ask.fm, Kik and other ways your teen is communicating. Help them keep a healthy balance by perhaps limiting their social media chatter to two or three sites that they truly use in positive ways, to keep in touch with friends. Personally, I would discourage my teens from using Ask.fm—it’s is a site that encourages teens to be anonymous and ask questions in a truth-or-dare type of format. I know it’s tedious, I know teens are resistant, and I know it’s a time-consuming task for parents, but… keep a list of social media sites your teen is on and know their passwords. Monitor their messages as often as you feel necessary—once a day, once a week, once a month—depending on their useage.
Look at the big e-picture
It’s so hard for our teens to see past their teenage years. But help them understand that their actions, online or otherwise, have consequences. This includes the spreading of negative or hateful messages, and every photo that they post. Their future is precious, their lives are precious.
For more information, here are some helpful resources:
StopBullying.gov – a website maintained by the federal government (Health & Human Services) that includes risk factors and warning signs of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying Research Center – including tips for parents – a site maintained by two educators/researchers/authors
Setting Limits on TV and Video Games (or How NOT to Win Mother-of- the Year) – a helpful post by fellow blogger Jen Ashenfelter