After a long day at work, you get home to reconnect with the people you love most. But at the dinner table, your middle schooler is unusually quiet. Stress from school, sports and life in general seem to take the blame, but this child is usually sunny and talkative. You ask what’s going on and she just shakes her head, doesn’t want to talk.
For preteens and teens going through rapid physiological changes, social pressures large and small are keenly felt in their daily lives. One teensy-weensy mean comment on Snapchat can send a kid reeling.
While social media is the social lifeline for kids, it’s also home to quick and careless responses that hurt. And some kids intend to hurt others. Today, cyberbullying is a daily threat to every child’s well-being — and with potentially disastrous results.
THE ANONYMITY OF BULLYING
Cyberbullying is any intentional attempt to harm another person on any device by threats, insults or peer pressure. Parents experience it on Facebook, and even they get hurt by it. It’s a continual growing threat, and kids are especially vulnerable to it.
According to Meg Benningfield, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences director in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, some bullies don’t know when to stop.
“It can be as extreme as one kid saying to another, ‘You should kill yourself,’” Benningfield says.
A kid’s response to a bully’s carelessness can be as disastrous as the kid believing he actually should kill himself.
POPULAR FEEDS RULE
Snapchat and Instagram are the two most popular social apps for kids and teens. They’re also where cyberbullying is most common, Benningfield says.
Unfortunately, cyberbullying is becoming more common — not less — in youth, and Benningfield says it typically increases in the middle school years. Kids can be damaged by it for years.
Because popular apps are where kids “hang out” most, it’s where bullying is happening most today.
“One of the biggest challenges with online bullying is that it can be anonymous and it can really snowball out of control in a way that’s less common in person,” Benningfield says. “One person can make a really awful comment and then others can comment on it in a way that really snowballs,” she adds.
Is time spent on social media the culprit then? Not necessarily, Benningfield says.
“The studies regarding social media and the relationship with emotional health are pretty mixed,” she says. “There certainly are some studies that say kids who spend time online are at greater risk for emotional health problems, but there are also studies that show that social media can be really effective in helping kids engage socially — especially kids who may have a difficult time being social in face-to-face ways,” Benningfield adds.
If you learn your child is being bullied, know the devices themselves are not the problem. The root of cyberbullying is similar to that of any other type of bullying: the deep-set issues within the bully himself. Being cruel to others helps the bully gain a sense of power and control.
Social media bullying on Snapchat and Instagram is rampant because parents are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, parents are one of the greatest deterrents in any bullying situation. When left totally out of the loop, though, they are neutralized.
It is critical for you to develop and maintain a trust relationship with each child in your home who has the privilege of having a smart phone. Open lines of communication come from this trust.
TRUST, TRUST, TRUST
Active, engaged parents make cyberbullying more difficult. When you take the time to engage with your kids in conversations about inappropriate posts made by online bullies (just as you take the time to talk to them about drugs, sex and alcohol), they become aware that you provide a safe space for them.
Kids need to know you intend to protect them as best you can; they need a relationship with you and you with them, and at the root of it all is trust.
Trust is the center of any healthy relationship. When kids trust that parents want what is best for them and that the parents won’t “lose it,” if they divulge hard details about their lives, they’ll feel free enough to let parents into the hidden areas of their lives.
When your child knows he can trust you and you can trust him, life becomes better for everyone.
MAKE A CONTRACT
Keeping tabs on your kid’s social media activities is the proven way of achieving his healthy social media presence.
“I encourage parents to use smartphone contracts,” Benningfield says. “Sit down, and before kids have access to devices, really talk about the rules and what they’re going to be,” she adds.
Benningfield encourages parents to write down all kid passwords and to routinely check the sites they are going to and the communications they are having. Kids can easily delete conversations and hide things from you if they want to, but having open conversations about social media from the beginning is key.
Raising kids is always a challenge. Without consistent involvement and guidance, it is easy in 2018 for cyberbullying to happen. If it does, you’ll be ready.
SNAPCHAT & INSTAGRAM CONTRACT
• Understand that using social media is a privilege and not a right. I understand my privilege may be revoked for uncooperative behavior or low grades.
• I know I should never use social media to be mean to anyone. I will not participate when others behave badly toward someone.
• I know my parents may look at my social media at any time for my protection, and I will give them my passwords so they may do so.
• I know that I need my parents’ permission to have a social media account and that they can take away my phone if I have a secret one.
• I promise I will help my child identify the good and bad on social media.
• I promise I will check my child’s social media accounts weekly to be sure that he’s safe and behaving appropriately, and that I will not play “gotcha” on him.
• I promise to remain calm if I see something on social media that concerns me.
• I promise that I will take immediate action if I determine that my child’s safety is in any way in question because of social media, which may include confiscating my child’s phone, contacting my child’s school or local officials if needed.