This week, yellow buses will again be a common sight on the morning commute, kids will get to know new classmates, and teachers will settle into their class schedule. While most parents are focused on buying school supplies or setting children’s new routines, there’s something else that should be on our minds.
The start of the school year should be paired with a candid conversation with kids about social media — and what to do when, not if, a daughter or son faces a trying time online, particularly for teens and pre-teens. Adolescents spend so much time relating to each other through technology, working through teenage-years trials in an online environment. Studies say that nearly 60% of U.S. adolescents have experienced online abuse, and 90% percent of teens think cyberbullying is a problem for themselves and their friends. The teen years are a period when the words and actions of friends have outsize ability to lift or crush one’s spirit. Girls are more likely to be targeted than boys.
In the age of Instagram, SnapChat, and messaging applications like WhatsApp, the old adage of “Sticks and stones" no longer holds true. How can parents support a teen through these challenging times?
First, it’s critical to have a common language with your child and clearly define what constitutes cyberbullying. Naming the behavior allows her to identify the problem, see when it’s happening, and learn to avoid it. Online conversations that begin innocently can quickly turn into bullying. An effective way to explain cyberbullying is to describe how social media can be used to harass, annoy, or alarm someone – and that includes rumors, inappropriate photos, teasing, excessive messaging, name-calling, and gossip that’s shared with a computer or on a phone. Middle and high schoolers often dismiss this activity as “digital drama,” so using specific examples helps establish clear boundaries as to what’s not acceptable.
Teens and pre-teens also need to be taught the importance of online privacy, for themselves and others. Help them understand that items shared via technology can never truly be deleted, even if their settings are set to private. A way to make this point clear is to show how easy it is to screen-shoot information or photos, so that the picture is still readily accessible and sharable after the original message is deleted. After this is clear, ask your daughter whether everything she’s ever posted is something she’d want a grandparent, teacher, or other favorite adult to see. If the answer is no, then explain why things like that shouldn’t be posted, making a connection to the fact that it’s still shareable and she has no control over with whom it’s shared.
Another step is to help your child answer that same question with a friend or classmate in mind. Ask her to think how the friend might feel if photographed at sleepovers, in locker rooms, or even in the bathroom – and then point out that people in the background of photos may feel the same way, so be mindful of others when taking pictures. The key is to help adolescents understand the need for both empathy and caution when using social media, and the importance of not just protecting their own privacy but the privacy of others.
Of course, the most critical message for your daughter or son is that they should always come to a trusted adult – a parent, teachers, or coach – when they see anything online that makes them feel threatened or uncomfortable, or if they’ve posted something that they’re now rethinking.
To give teenagers space, parents often take a step back. The challenge comes in navigating a balance between being the parent who attempts to remove every obstacle and the parent who is completely hands-off. Today’s teenage years are when kids need us the most. It’s not the time to rely on technical fixes, like Instagram’s new anti-bullying tools, but to more actively talk to your daughter or son and be attentive to their social media activity. They will thank you for it. Maybe not right away, but one day.