“You should die,” “Why don’t you go kill yourself,” “Why are you still alive?” “You’re ugly,” “Drink bleach and die,” “Can u die please?” “You haven’t killed yourself yet.” “Go jump off of a building.”
These are only some of the harassing and hateful texts that 12 year- old Rebecca Ann Sedwick continuously received on her cellphone from several middle school classmates who bullied her for nearly one year. On September 9, 2013, Rebecca jumped to her death from a platform at an abandoned cement factory, instead of going to school.
While the cause of Rebecca’s suicide cannot be attributed to any one or all those “mean girls” who tormented her online and through text messages, the case, which made national headlines, continues to illustrate how teens today are using the Internet and cellphones to
send relentless, hateful electronic messages known as cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is defined as: someone who is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another person using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or mobile phones. Cyberbullying is a very real problem among teens. In fact, nearly 43 percent of teens admit to having been bullied online and 1 in 4 say they have experienced it more than once.
It’s incomprehensible that anyone, let alone young people, could send such hateful messages as the girls who tormented Rebecca Ann Sedwick. However, these dangerous hateful messages are all too real and becoming more commonplace. Teens have access to
newer, lesser-known social applications like Ask.fm and Kik, which are not only free, but can be used anonymously or by creating a fictitious identification, allowing teens to spew hateful comments behind a veil of anonymity.
Most parents of teens are familiar with social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Some parents have even heard of Snapchat, where teens can send a photo, video, or comment that disappears almost as quickly as it’s sent. However, there are many other apps at your teens’ disposal that put the ability to victimize–or be victimized, literally into the palm of their hand. If you’re scratching your head when you hear or read about Burnbook, Voxer, Kik, YikYak, Tinder, Tumblr, Ask.fm, Poke, Vine, Whisper, Secret, or ShotsofMe, then it’s time to educate yourself and read up on the trendy new social media apps teens are using. These are the latest apps tweens and teens are flocking to these days. Many of the above-listed apps are being used for cyberbullying. Anonymous cyberbullying is a rising trend on the Internet, as teens are increasingly turning to pseudonymity to abuse others, so that the targeted victim may or may not know who is harassing them. When it comes to online safety, only being your teen’s “Friend” on Facebook is like letting them drive a car with a seatbelt but no working brakes. You need to be more than just familiar with all your teen’s social media apps.
Knowing “cyber lingo,” as well as which app does what, will keep you in tune to how teens are communicating with each other. From a teen’s perspective today, texting is the equivalent of talking. They don’t speak face to face – they text, even when they are sitting next to each other.
Start the conversation…Ask your teen which apps he or she is using and how they work? It’s not possible to join every site or app and monitor your teen’s every move online, nor should you. It’s more important that you build trust, start the conversation, and keep it ongoing. There will always be some new platform that your teen will find and you won’t know about it yet. Rather than being a “helicopter” parent and hovering or completely barring your teen from downloading social media apps all together, start a conversation about “common sense” social media etiquette, safety, and cyberbullying.
CYBER-ETIQUETTE OR DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP
Parents consistently reinforce being a good citizen, having proper manners, and etiquette like saying, “please,” and “thank you” and of course, the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, how many parents and/or teachers talk to teens about how to use good manners when leaving a comment on a blog post? The rules are the same; we call it “cyber-etiquette” or “digital citizenship.” Helping teens be smart, safe, respectful citizens online should be part of every child’s education both at home and in school. Some parents like to say, “If you wouldn’t be proud to share it with grandma, then don’t share it online.” The number one rule for online behavior is, “If you wouldn’t say it or use those words in person, then don’t put it online. Teaching proper social media behavior empowers teens to make a difference and end online negativity. Instead of allowing them to wrap themselves in the cloak of anonymity, let’s teach our teens to use social media in a positive way.
It’s almost impossible to prevent cyberbullying altogether, but what you can do is educate your teen and minimize the chances that they will be a victim of cyberbullying or harass someone else online. Teens can use smartphones and computers to harass other teens by
sending malicious text messages, uploading embarrassing photos or videos on websites, taking over someone’s social media profile, or creating a new profile. First, educate yourself about cyberbullying. Next, get to know how your teen uses his/her computer and smartphone. Find out what are they doing online when not working on homework? Then, start the conversation about cyberbullying and its various incarnations. And finally, teach your teen what information they can share with others online and what they can’t, such as
telephone numbers, addresses, their full name, and school. Remind them that they should never send any information they don’t want the general public to see. It is important to acknowledge that nothing on the Internet or sent in a text is truly private.
What should you do if Your Teen is Being Bullied Online?
Keep the lines of communication open and ask your teen to let you know if someone is hurting him/her or making them feel uncomfortable online, even if the person is acting anonymously. Let them know that not every cyberbully needs a response. If they receive a hateful message or inappropriate picture, don’t respond, but also don’t ignore it. Ask your teen to try and get a screenshot, especially if it’s something like Snapchat where communications quickly disappear. Sometimes, bullies are just trying to get a rise out of them. However, if it persists, it is important that you encourage and help your teen document the bullying behavior. Involving school administrators, if the source of the bullying is a schoolmate, is the next step, as cyberbullying will have an impact on your teen’s social life and ability to learn.
If you haven’t established certain online and social media rules already, and the words cyberbullying and cyber-etiquette have not been discussed, don’t wait! Start the conversation today and you will be prepared for tomorrow.
Mendi Baron, LCSW, is the founder and CEO of Evolve Treatment Centers, a treatment Center for teens struggling with mental health and addiction issues, based in Southern California. A passionate advocate for teens in the field of mental health and addiction, Mendi is a go-to expert to start the conversation on critical issues that impact teens and their families. For more information go to www.evolvetreatment.com or email Mendi at Mendib@evolvetreatment.com