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Dublin - My kids are not on Facebook. They’d like to be – many of their friends are – but I am not budging.
It’s not that I am keen to restrict their freedom – they have lots of it offline – but letting them loose on social-media sites would be, I think, like driving them to the centre of a giant city where they have never been before, then letting them out of the car and driving away. It’s just not a good idea.
I’m not on Facebook either, which helps, and Twitter, which I love, doesn’t have the same appeal for kids. They think it’s deadly boring.
I am not one of those people who fear other people on the internet, either. Far from it – I’ve met friends and boyfriends through social media and internet dating, and, like most people, regard the internet as the greatest invention since the printing press.
But that doesn’t mean I want my children roaming cyberspace without restriction. This has nothing to do with accidentally stumbling on to porn sites – there are parental controls to prevent that. It is about something more subtle.
As adults, we understand nuance; we can read between the lines and decode online social interaction.
Adults – at least, most of us – have clear boundaries and a strong sense of self-preservation. In other words, we can recognise something iffy.
Kids generally haven’t yet honed this facility, even as they use digital media as their primary communication mode.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about hacking, stalking, threatening, flaming (online fights), impersonation, outing, gossip and defamation?
Offline, we are always warning our kids to watch out for dodgy adults, predators, grown-ups taking advantage of their grown-up power over children. We emphasise stranger danger above all else.
But really the people most routinely harmful to children are other children. For every child abuser or abductor, there are a million school bullies, a million mean girls and nasty boys. And when they’re not in the playground, they’re all online.
Bullying used to be getting your head kicked in at the bus stop and your lunch money stolen by bloody-minded boys, or snide girls pretending you were invisible or, worse, like a bad smell in their midst.
Pre-digital, bullying was a hands-on affair, where physical intimidation was used to frighten, humiliate and exclude unlucky members of the peer group. Post-digital, it has gone remote.
But cyberbullying is no less shattering than the face-to-face kind. It can be deadly. I have read of three teenage girls – two in Ireland and one in Canada – who died recently as a result of it, the girls desperate enough to regard suicide as their only means of escape.
The idea that something as innocuous and inanimate as a computer screen or cellphone could drive teenagers to their deaths is almost incomprehensible to an adult, but then we are not digital natives.
We have not grown up with social-networking sites, texting, instant messages, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook and all the myriad ways kids and young people have of communicating with each other beyond old-school talking face to face and on the phone.
Pre-digital, the humiliation of being bullied was restricted to whoever witnessed it in the playground at the time; cyberbullying has an infinite audience, multiplying feelings of shame and loneliness.
It’s timeless and indelible, no matter how regulated a site may be – you can’t erase everything.
And it’s not like an adult can march smartly in and break up the fight. Adults often haven’t a clue what’s going on with their kids online. I know I don’t. Hence the ban on social-networking sites until my children are older and more able to deal with them.
Meanwhile, I remind my kids over and over to always be kind, always be inclusive, no matter where they are.
“I’ve seen cases of kids being totally ostracised by their peer group because of something posted online,” says psychologist Ian Gargan, adding that children and teenagers find it impossible to defend themselves online because it involves people they don’t even know forming negative opinions about them based on uploaded bile.
This denigration happens at exactly the time kids are building their identities, constructing their personalities, their confidence.
“My worry is that it could lead to psychiatric illness that would follow teenagers into adulthood,” says Dr Gargan.
So, what do you do? My kids are 12 and nine, so it’s still easy to just say no to Facebook, online forums, etc. It’s not that they don’t have access to personal technology – the 12-year-old has a laptop and a BlackBerry, the nine-year-old has a Nintendo DS and is in line for a cellphone on his next birthday – but just as I don’t let them roam around the city unaccompanied, neither are they allowed to do so online.
Recently, they have come to see why.
One of my daughter’s classmates is a bully, and has graduated from playground bullying to cyberbullying. This bully regularly impersonates other kids online as a “joke”, which embarrasses them – she pretends she is someone else, and sends romantic messages to friends of the opposite sex.
This might sound harmless, but when you’re 12 or 13, it’s excruciating. She leaves nasty comments on the pages of her friends’ social- media sites, gossips wildly, and uses social media to bully and exclude weaker members of her peer group.
Lately, she has been uploading inappropriately sexualised images of herself. This is not to slag off the child in question – she is troubled, and subsequently attention-seeking – but to highlight just how easy it is for a child to misuse the mighty internet.
We wouldn’t give a kid access to a bottle of vodka or a gun, yet we assume we can let them loose online once the porn sites are blocked and nothing bad will happen.
“Parents need to ensure that children are only given age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate freedom to roam online,” says psychologist Marie Claire O’Brien.
“For example, an older child who has not yet developed competency in interacting socially in the real world should be supported and monitored when he or she is interacting in [areas] that would require sophisticated communication skills, such as online forums.
“Parents need to make decisions about how much freedom they allow children to have online in a similar vein to how they make decisions about allowing children freedom in the community.”
O’Brien explains that even if your children are using the internet at home with their parents nearby, it’s not enough to protect them from risks.
“Although children can be physically close to you whilst they are roaming online, they are exposed to a wide range of potentially harmful situations,” she says.
“Ideally, parents would ‘scaffold’ or grade their child’s level of freedom online so that the child would be given very little freedom initially and gradually allowed more after demonstrated periods of safe and responsible internet use.”
As a parent, you can’t ban your kids from being online. That would be luddite, and counterproductive.
The main work is to instil two crucial points.
First, the importance of empathy. Ask them to imagine how they would feel if someone was mean to them.
Second, and if the empathy route doesn’t work, there is the stark reality that were your kids to become involved in a case of cyberbullying, their part in it would all be documented and traceable.
Meanwhile, encourage your kids to get out of the house – there is still life beyond screens. – Irish Independent
When bullies go viral
Gossip: Posting or sending cruel gossip to damage a person's reputation and relationships with friends, family and acquaintances.
Exclusion: Deliberately excluding someone from an online group
Impersonation: Breaking into someone's email or other online account and sending messages that will cause embarrassment or damage to the person's reputation and affect their relationship with others
Harassment: Repeatedly posting or sending offensive, rude and insulting messages.
Cyberstalking: Posting or sending unwanted or intimidating messages, which may include threats.
Flaming: Online fights where scornful and offensive messages are posted on websites, forums or blogs.
Outing and trickery: Tricking someone into revealing secrets or embarrassing information, which is then shared online.
Cyber threats: Remarks on the internet threatening or implying violent behaviour. - Source: InternetSafety101.org