I love Facebook. It’s enabled me to connect with people whom I had long ago nearly forgotten, to see pictures of old friends in their current configurations, and to meet new people who are kindred spirits and quirky characters. (It has also sucked away hours of time that should have been spent more productively, but that’s one of the many challenges we all must learn to deal with in this brave new age!)
As a high school guidance counselor, it has also presented me with some of my greatest challenges in terms of how to deal with kids that are being mean to each other in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I was in high school. Whether it is setting up a fake page posing as someone else and making them look like a fool, or girls pretending to like some lonely boy only to get him to confess his undying adoration before squashing his heart, or posting Photoshopped images that enable anyone with minor tech skills to make anyone else into anything they want them to be, or making crude and nasty threats to students at other schools so that extra security has to be hired prior to athletic events, the Internet has radically altered the landscape that teens inhabit.
The fact of the matter is that the tools utilized by teens – whether it’s cell phones, laptops, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, IMs or iPods – have created a virtual Wild, Wild West in which very few rules are written, much less applied with any effectiveness whatsoever. Teenagers figured this stuff out long before we did, and now they have set up their own outlaw outposts on the Internet and we adults come along like a bunch of rubes from back east, telling them they need to clean up their acts. The truth is, most teens have already been at this for a couple of years, and only recently have most of us responsible for their welfare been taking a noticeable interest in their activities.
At a recent parents’ presentation at my school (Between Scylla & Charybdis: Guiding Your Child through High School without Hijacking the Ship!) I asked how many parents were on Facebook. There were about 100 parents in attendance, and I’d say at least 60 raised their hands. I then asked how many were “Friends” with their children, and I’d say the number was about the same. I think many of us as parents got spooked about the dangers of the Internet, and decided the best policy was to monitor everything our kids were doing. There’s a new sheriff in town! I understand the inclination, and think that young adolescents particularly might need some supervision. But what are we going to do when they’re in college?
I’ve found that the most effective interventions have been through a direct and honest approach. For instance, when a group of students posted an “I Hate Mr. So and So” about a teacher, I joined the group, then posted on the Wall “Top Ten Reasons Why Joining This Group is a Really Bad Idea.” I made my points in a non-judgmental, semi-humorous way, appealing to the students’ sense of reason and ethical behavior. Most of the students dropped out of the group, and I was able to take over as a group administrator and extinguish it. The formula for intervening is pretty simple: explain to the student why this behavior is unacceptable, ask them to come up with a solution, and then follow through to see if it has happened.
The truth is, our best hope of influencing our children’s online behavior is through creating a relationship of trust and safety with them. Let them know your concerns about their safety, and talk to them about the kinds of activities that are considered cyberbullying. Ask them to let you know if they are targets of cyberbullying, or if they see kids from their school involved in cyberbullying. A great way to initiate these sorts of conversations is to look for items in the news related to teens and computer use, and offer them as icebreakers toward productive dialogue. Make sure the dialogue doesn’t turn into a lecture, and be sure that your child knows they can safely bring sensitive issues to you without an explosion! It’s important to give our children tools for making ethical decisions, whether someone’s watching over their shoulders or not.
Here are some resources for further learning:
Stop Bullying Now – One of the most comprehensive sites out there in terms of good, practical information on dealing with bullying:
The Ophelia Project – Informative site on issues for girls, with a focus on relational aggression:
Wired Safety Comprehensive site with practical advice on internet safety:
WebWiseKids Kid friendly safety site:
ABC’s of Bullying – Free Online Course – Excellent analysis of the theories at work in the psychology of bullying:
Vanessa Van Petten’s blog – A young adult who works with teens and their families to create better communication, understanding, and closer relationships
How to Prevent Cyberbullying: From the Home to the Homeroom A brief primer on cyberbullying: