Helping keep kids safe while they are online has become a serious concern for me. I have an eight year old daughter who has become very active on the computer. There are many risks when using computers, starting with protecting them from seeing inappropriate content to preventing them from being bullied online.
Too often, parents are completely unaware that their children are the victim of cyberbullying. Perhaps they believe that they could see the signs or they feel that their children would tell them if something was wrong. That is rarely the case and when it goes too far, the result is often suicide. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10-24, with roughly 4,500 suicides per year. Boys are more likely than girls by a rate of 4 to 1 to commit suicide, according to the CDC.
Back in 2009, Hope Witsell, a bright young girl in Florida committed suicide by hanging herself in her own bedroom after being subjected to being bullied, both in person and on MySpace, including on a page titled, “Hope Hater”. Her mother, Donna, found her when she went to kiss her daughter goodnight. Her family was completely unaware of the horrors that Hope had been experiencing.
While not all victims end up the way that Hope did, parents need to realize that any child that uses a computer can become a target, including their own children. I know that I was completely caught off guard when my daughter came across inappropriate content while searching for information on a popular children’s book series. Undesirable consequences can occur sooner than most parents expect, maybe because they base their expectations for their kids on their own experiences. I didn’t even have a computer class until I was in 10th grade. My daughter has had classes going back as far as pre-school/daycare.
The most important thing parents can do is to speak with their kids about what they are experiencing, both in school and online. It is never too early to have “the talk” with your kids. Don’t just be prepared to have the talk with them – actually have the talk with them. Kids are taught how to use computers at a very early age – far younger than we were when we learned how to use them. Or they figure that since their kids are popular, they are immune to such behavior. As a result, parents don’t realize how early their kids are at risk or that they’re at risk at all.
Look for signs that could indicate that they are being bullied online.
Some of the most common signs of online bullying are:
- Have they stopped or dramatically decreased using the computer or their cellphone?
- Do they look nervous when they a get a new text message, tweet or status update alert?
- Do they turn off their phone or computer when someone else gets near them?
- Are they showing signs of being depressed or have they withdrawn from their friends?
Online activity can be both educational and fun, but it also has risks. To help parents manage those risks, I have created a Facebook page called a Parent’s Guide to Social Media that I encourage you to visit. I share news, advice and tips to help keep all kids safe. When it comes to cyberbullying, we can do better – we MUST do better!