Column: Would Grandma approve of your kid’s internet behaviour?

Photo credit: Deb Stephenson, DLS Photography.

Jennifer Cox is a communications graduate from the University of Windsor who is now a computer trainer for the Avon Maitland District School Board. She lives in Clinton with her husband and two children. She writes when she can find the time.


The stories on the radio or in the news about cases of bullying seem to be increasing lately, perhaps more frequent and sometimes more violent than ever before. But, there’s always been a bully. I’m sure that almost every one of us can recall a time from childhood, maybe on the playground, that we dealt with the embarrassment, fear, or pain from a bully’s cruel words or actions. And others will remember, likely with regret, being that bully.

Due to school bullying awareness and prevention campaigns we are all much more aware of the bullying issues today. Hopefully we are also just as non-tolerant of it, but it’s not likely that we will ever eradicate the bully.

Today, added to the playground bullying, is the online bullying threat. Because my job involves technology and education I keep myself aware of what kids have available to them online. I pay attention to stories about cyber bullying and I try to talk to my kids often about what they are chatting about online or what games they are playing. They are not yet at the age where they are using social media but it won’t be long.

As parents and members of small communities, we have an opportunity and an obligation to keep tabs on the online life of our kids. We may not be able to always be there on the playground but I believe we need to work harder at understanding and taking more seriously what kids are doing online, monitoring it, or at least questioning them about it continually. They may never do anything inappropriate or participate in anything like cyber bullying but I can bet you they will witness it. And what have we been telling our kids for years about being a witness to bullying? That they should speak up about it, help the one that is being bullied. So, when the bullying is occurring on Facebook or in text messages, it’s in plain sight, it shouldn’t be as hard to catch the bully.

The bigger issue is what makes today’s bully far more powerful than yesterday’s. It’s the power that anyone, let alone bullies, can get from the use of the internet. This is something we can work to eradicate. It’s not hard to find out what sites kids have been to on a home computer. If children are going to be allowed on social media sites, parents should take the time to explain to them the implications when they post comments or pictures of their friends or themselves. Maybe something like, “If you wouldn’t be proud to have your Grandma see it then don’t post it.” I think it’s important that children be educated over and over again on the realities of having an online presence and what to do if something wrong is happening to them or someone they know. Just as a parent would contact a teacher or a coach about face-to-face bullying, parents should feel confident in following through with authorities and the online providers when they suspect something inappropriate is going on.

You may have heard the tragic Amanda Todd story. A 12-year-old girl makes a silly mistake online by allowing herself to be photographed topless. She ends up being cyber bullied by an adult who sends her image everywhere and she ends up in a downward spiral of more bullying by classmates, depression, alcohol and eventually commits suicide. But not before making a You Tube video telling the world the whole story.  There are so many issues in this extreme case of cyber bullying and abuse it’s hard to know where to begin.

Aside from underlying problems that we may never be made aware of, the biggest issue is that it’s painfully obvious many young people still do not understand the power of the online medium.  This power can be taken advantage of by those who otherwise would likely be of no harm to anyone. The online world provides a level of anonymity when the user wants it to. Anyone can be anyone they want to pretend to be. Those who are inclined can take advantage of that “protection” the internet provides, it’s just a screen, not a person after all.

I heard another story of social media gone wrong on a news station just last week. A girl in Grade 6 was asked by a classmate if she was on Facebook. The girl replied that she wasn’t and then learned that someone had created a Facebook account in her name and was posting inappropriate and disturbing content on her page as well as nasty comments about other people. It turned out, after an investigation by the social media site and police, that it was a classmate of the girl who had done this to her. Grade 6! In this case, it wasn’t some scary stranger from the big bad wide world, it was the girl next door.

Many people seem to believe that if we get rid of sites like Facebook and Twitter it would solve the problem. In my mind, that would be overkill…like when the whole class gets punished for something one kid did. I don’t think it’s the fault of the internet or these social media sites entirely. I think the bigger problem is that there is much less control of where the access point is to all of these sites. Give a kid a cell phone and all of a sudden a whole new world of potential exists to be online whenever they want, out of anyone’s sight.

Social media has been around a while now, and it isn’t going anywhere. It has become a medium of interaction, of showing off your life, sometimes every moment of it good or bad. Of course, just like email, this interaction is often not at all similar to the interaction people have face to face. It can be misinterpreted, blown out of proportion, and worst of all, it is permanent and perpetual.

It can also be an incredible tool. Things like finding long lost family members, meeting up with old high school friends, learning, creating. Of course the flip side of this is that it can also be an incredibly powerful tool for causing pain, embarrassment, and shame.

It’s tough for parents as it’s no longer as simple as keeping the family computer in the kitchen where you can keep an eye on what your kids are doing online. Hand held devices and cell phones are something a child has to show responsibility with and respect for. Do you give a child a smart phone who has not shown maturity and responsibility otherwise? What do you suppose they are going to do with it? If a child continues to be irresponsible and disrespectful online what should be done? I suggest Googling the video of the man who shoots his daughter’s laptop because of her inability to follow the rules attached to having one. Extreme? Of course. But the message is clear. If the child cannot adhere to the rules of having A) a device and B) social media accounts, that child will lose the device and the account.

This is not the only answer and I don’t have all the answers. I know we can’t protect our kids from everything but that’s no reason to abandon the idea of internet safety. Discussion about how to be respectful and responsible should be continual. Kids need reminded of everything else so why not acceptable internet behaviour? Expectations of use should be clear and followed up on.

I say child because I think that’s where it needs to start. If I let my 10- or 11-year-old on Facebook then I will make sure they understand what it’s all about. I’ll make sure they know about privacy settings and what a “friend” really is. I will tell them that whether or not their grandmother is on Facebook, if they would be embarrassed for her to see something they posted then they shouldn’t post it – anywhere to anyone. I will maintain the conversation about what they are doing on Facebook and I, of course, will be their first friend. I will also explain that even though they are sending a private message to someone, it may not stay private. Who knows who might be reading over someone’s shoulder?

For example, I heard on the radio the other day that if a person has ever texted or posted a naked picture of themselves to anyone or anywhere, there is an 88 per cent chance that it will go viral. What you thought was private is suddenly anything but.

There is also the phenomenon that youth and even adults are more and more obsessed with sharing every aspect of their lives. I was recently informed by my kids that I had to stop posting images of them without first getting their permission! What an eye opener. Obviously I am posting things out of love and the desire to share their lives with family. I want people close to me to know my children and me as a parent. But it made me realize that I need to model respectful social media behaviour just as much as I preach it.

As I end this column, it seems very much about the “big bad world” but I don’t want to seem all doom and gloom. Bullying will never go away in any form but we have made progress with schoolyard bullying awareness and prevention campaigns and I believe we can do the same and more for the cyber bullying that is just beginning. Social media can be a great thing but like any tool it has to be used in the right way. When it isn’t, it must be addressed and treated as a great learning and discussion opportunity with our kids who will become responsible citizens digitally and personally.

Written by on November 14, 2012 in Jennifer Cox - No comments

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