Passwords & Privileges
From cyber bullying to sexting, supervising kids’ online presence can help prevent unwanted interaction
By Dwain Hebda
As anyone with tweener or teenage children knows, the awkward years, the struggle to fit in and the related clumsy, embarrassing incidents have changed little since our own growing up. All of the things from those days that we’d rather not relive still occur, amplified by happening in front of—and sometimes ridiculed by—others.
What has changed is today’s bullies have wider and more devastating reach than ever before. Access to, and proficiency with, technology means the taunts, ridicule and other forms of harassment that used to end with the school day can now be streamed nearly constantly and to an almost unlimited audience, sometimes with tragic consequences.
“The way that I explain it is that bullies in the original sense of the term used to kick or hit and that would cause bruises or marks that would require some time to heal,” says Dr. Wendy Ward, pediatric psychologist at UAMS, who practices at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “Cyber bullies cause bruises or marks on self image and self esteem and those bruises take longer to heal.”
Cyber bullying is one end of a spectrum of issues that parents must understand when deciding what degree of online (read: social media) access their children can handle, particularly as yesterday’s use-only-in-emergencies flip phone became today’s must-have pocket-sized computer virtually overnight.
Along the way, social media, email, text, Internet and cameras all came along for the ride, revolutionizing communication, interaction and commerce. All of which makes for a pretty heady brew for your average middle schooler to use responsibly.
Cyber Bullying is a Crime in Arkansas, Punishable by Jail, Fine or Both.
“Tweeners are definitely where the use of technology starts and like any responsibility with inadequate preparation, rules and oversight, misbehavior happens in that age group,” Ward says. “They don’t have fully functional frontal lobes and that’s the part of the brain that inhibits impulsivity. When you’re being emotional, especially with hormones, you rip something off and it’s easy to click send. Emotions wax and wane and you may not mean it five minutes later, but it’s there.”
Such impulsivity and emotionality explain how otherwise modest, even shy students are induced into sexting—sending explicit messages or photos of themselves or baring themselves in front of webcams, presumptively only for the viewing of a boyfriend or girlfriend—but that’s only part of the equation. Often the recipient has ulterior motives or uses such images as revenge when a relationship cools and may share it or post it online.
Cyber bullies don’t require such material, of course, to cause pain and embarrassment in their victims. Young people dealing with body issues, mental or physical challenges, or who simply struggle to fit in are all ready targets for those who would seek to ridicule, threaten or humiliate. While Ward is quick to point out that not every random unkind word constitutes bullying, such are a far cry from the coordinated, pervasive and relentless attacks students have launched upon others.
“The fact is, as a pre-teen or a teenager, an occasional negative comment from someone, just because of the age they are, is going to happen,” she says. “But when it’s targeted and repeated, you consider it a true bullying incident and whether it’s online or face-to-face, it really isn’t very different. It’s just the level of access that you have to it and how public it becomes.”
Ward counsels parents to take a systematic approach in evaluating whether a child is ready to go digital, beginning with an assessment of their level of maturity, particularly in how they manage their emotions.
“When they’re upset, are they mouthing off at a friend or at you or are they able to more appropriately manage that feeling?” she says. “What is their understanding and their awareness of their own safety, such as being aware in public places or as they’re walking in the dark, making sure they’re walking in a lighted area? If that stuff becomes natural and is part of their decision-making process, then they’re going to have some mindfulness about safety in an online forum.”
From there, address specific dos and don’ts for social media backed up by frequent monitoring and rules you are committed to enforcing.
“Just because you allow access doesn’t mean you don’t have rules over it,” she says. “With my kids, for instance, I need to have your password, I need to be your Facebook friend, I need to see what you’re posting and I also need to see what’s on the back-channel chatting. The minute the password changes and you don’t have access anymore is the minute you lose the privilege.”
WHAT TO DO
Tell Someone: Let your young person know what to do if they are the target of repeated threatening or embarrassing messages online. Have them take screenshots or photograph the messages as proof and if feasible, take it up with the parents of the perpetrator.
Don’t Feed The Trolls, Escalate: Responding directly to abusers just makes matters worse. Instead, if you get nowhere with the parents, take the matter to the school. State law require schools to have anti-bullying policies in place, so particularly if it happens during the school day, let a school official know as soon as possible.
Law & Order: If the child’s safety is in question or if other avenues fail to stop the harassment, contact law enforcement. Cyber bullying is a crime in Arkansas, punishable by jail, fine or both. If the initial police report doesn’t yield result, keep at it.