This past fall, Marysville, Wash. high school freshman Jaylen Fryberg opened fire in the cafeteria, shooting five of his classmates before taking his own life. Prior to this tragedy, Jaylen's Twitter posts had reflected a picture of a teen who felt rejected, angry, suicidal, and desperate. In the aftermath, many questions were raised: Was his family aware of his tweets? Were there other red flags offline, such as behavior change? What, if anything, could have been done to prevent such a horrific act?
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Whisper, and Yik Yak are among the hundreds of social media platforms used by teens. As social media becomes increasingly abundant and accessible, it is more difficult for parents to have a sense of control and safety regarding their children's presence in the virtual world. Many parents continue to struggle with finding a balance between parental authority and teen privacy and autonomy. Even Facebook is implementing new strategies that they hope will lessen the risk of suicidal acts that might be predicted from the posts of at-risk people.
There are benefits to youth using social media. It provides them with increased socialization and communication, enhanced learning opportunities, and access to health information, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, there are several risks associated with a teen's use of social media. These include cyber bullying and online harassment, sexting, privacy concerns and the digital footprint. Other problems such as internet addiction and sleep deprivation are also on the rise. In an interview study with parents conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, parents reported wanting to have more control over their teens, but not knowing how; while others find it to be a constant battle to enforce rules and while keeping up with advances in technology.
Experts agree that building parent-child communication around a child's social media activity is key. Although you may be unfamiliar with these technologies, engaging in conversations with your teen is an effective way to promote their safety, both online and in real life. Parents ultimately seek to protect their teens while fostering independence, and while monitoring their online activity may be one piece of this, maintaining open, respectful communication can help ensure that teens understand expectations for their internet use.
There are several resources that can help you learn to navigate social media sites and understand how to engage in positive, supportive conversations with your teen about social media. Here is a sampling of tips from ConnectSafely: Smart Socializing Starts Here:
1. Good parent-child communication: Low-key routine discussion about online experiences, just as with offline ones, makes it easier for them to talk with you when things come up.
2. Talk with your teen about the virtual worlds they use and ask them to show you around: See what your child's profile looks like and what screen name has been chosen. Try to hold back snap judgments (long-term guidance usually works better than control if the goal is learning rather than short-term compliance). Are your teen's in-world friends mostly their friends from real life? If not, do they know that they can't really know who people are online unless they know them offline?
3. Virtual play, real reputations: By now, all teens have heard that things they say in live game chat, type into chat windows, post in profiles, and text on phones can be captured and shared elsewhere. They know a comment can come back to haunt them, but research shows they don't always think about how – over time – texts and posts can collectively turn into a reputation that can be hard to turn around.
4. Watch for behavior changes: Just as in real-world spaces, things can happen in virtual ones, and kids can have strong emotional reactions. If your teen becomes upset or distant, isn't sleeping well, or is struggling academically, talk with them in a non- confrontational way and see if spending less time socializing online would help. Because virtual worlds can be pretty compelling, you may find the need to talk about and demonstrate the value of balance in our lives.
As parents, we want to know if our child has any problems in the virtual world and be in a position to protect them from these risks. We want to be able to provide an explanation if our child views something online that is not consistent with our family values. Ultimately, we want to be able to prevent something bad from happening to them. It is imperative to balance the urge for monitoring with trusting your teen's ability to self-regulate and problem solve. By creating an open dialogue about social media with your teen, you can bridge that gap in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy.
We don't know yet whether new suicide-prevention policies from social media platforms will be effective. As with so many other things, involved and supportive parents remain their child's best protection from cyber bullying as well as self-harm.
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