At the dawn of social media, we heard a lot about adult strangers in chat rooms, preying on kids. But a much more common threat to kids online is cyberbullying, digital harassment by a child’s own classmates. And yet, it is rarely addressed effectively. Not by schools nor by parents armed with the latest spy-ware. Simple fact is that teens’ 24/7 connection with peers provides endless opportunities, temptations, and social rewards for behaving very badly online. The extreme consequences of which are teen depression, suicide and/or school violence.
“It’s not that all social media is ‘bad,’” says Annie Fox, author of Teaching Kids to Be Good People, and a leading teen expert and blogger in the area of social intelligence and bullying prevention. “The social media genie isn’t going back into the bottle. We need to manage our children’s time online because connection addiction makes it impossible for them to manage it on their own. We also need to provide clear guidelines and teach kids what is and what is not appropriate online behavior.”
The effects of long-term exposure can be serious, cites Fox, and should be addressed early and often. Recent studies have indicated that constant exposure to digital connections, (i.e., social media and cell phones) can lead to impulsive (thoughtless) choices and a loss of empathy. “We see this,” says Fox, “in kids who target others for sport without any sense that being mean isn’t OK. That’s not behavior we can afford to ignore.”
So what can parents do to balance their kids’ need for virtual access with our need to teach them to be good people online and off?
1. What can a parent do to help their child detach from their online world? Life isn’t virtual. When we get control of our own connection addiction, and prioritize face-to-face social interactions (in the family and out in the world), kids will follow our lead.
2. Try limiting a teens’ access to digital connections, and they’ll probably get angry. How can parents handle that? Be clear that unplugging isn’t a “punishment.” Rather you are creating opportunities for positive family time… conversations, games, making meals, etc.
3. What do you think are the biggest, long-term ramifications of having a child who is always online? Kids need to rub up against the real world to develop grit, social smarts, compassion. If all they know is the digital world, they can become be too anxious about social status and unable to have healthy friendships.
4. Is there really a way that a parent can prevent cyberbullying? Bullying is a two-way street and every socially aggressive kid is somebody’s child. Access to social media has to come with clear parental guidelines: “We don’t do that in this family and here’s why.”
5. How can parents help kids deal with the ups and downs of friendship? Parents need to teach kids to talk about distressing emotions (anger, jealousy, rejection) and provide practical tools for managing emotions responsibly so kids don’t lash out and hurt others.
6. How can parents know everything that goes on when kids are online? We can’t. But we need to lead in the direction of good character so our kids will have our voice inside their head when they consider crossing the line into unacceptable behavior.
Annie Fox is an internationally respected character educator and the author of five books for teens about growing up and getting along. Her books include The Teen Survival Guide to Dating and Relating, Too Stressed to Think? (with Ruth Kirschner), and the popular Middle School Confidential™ book and app series. Since 1997, when she launched the groundbreaking teen website TheInSite.org, Annie has been answering teen and parenting questions from around the world. Because of her unique perspective into adult-t(w)een relationships, she is a sought-after speaker who takes equal delight connecting with students, educators, and parents.