Parenting Pressures: How Can I Best Protect My Child Against Cyberbullies?
Talking together is the key to tackling bullying
Author - Marian Merritt
The Challenge of Modern Parenting
Those of us who are parents or carers know that we ‘ll do just about anything to ensure the good health and wellbeing of our children. We want the best for our kids, and for them to have more opportunities than we ever did growing up.
One of the toughest challenges for parents comes when it’s time to send our kids off to school and entrust their learning, development and welfare to teachers, peers and others. We can’t always watch over and protect our kids, so teaching them ways to handle common problems can help them prepare for some of the challenges they may encounter.
It’s difficult to always know how best to prepare our kids for adversity, as the world we grew up in is quite different to the one they now face. New technologies have brought with them endless opportunities to learn and engage with people and information far beyond our geographical communities, as well as new challenges and pressures, such as the impact of cyberbullying. As parents we sometimes don’t know where to start.
Whether we like it or not, some of our kids will be those that are picked on by others at school, others will observe it in action, while some of our kids will be the instigators. Regardless of whether our children might be the target, the bully or an observer, as parents we can help them best by reaching out, speaking with them about their feelings, provide insights around appropriate responses or actions, or connect them with the right people for further advice or strategies.
Tragic stories like those of Stephanie Garret[i], the 15-yr old Palmerston North student who died this year after being bullied online, are an emotional reminder for parents of the harmful effects and impact that cyberbullying can have.
The Schoolyard is now 24/7
We might have grown up seeing bullies at recess or lunch in the schoolyard, but it's safe to assume that as parents, most of us didn't grow up using mobile phones at school, or having our lives documented through blogs or social networking sites from an early age. For many of us, our 'digital footprint' didn't even begin until we may have been in the workforce for a number of years.
Social networking and mobile phones can be accessed around the clock, which means that bullying can be more invasive than ever before. Additionally, bullies can remain anonymous online if they choose, masking their actions and making it harder for targets or supervisory adults to confront them.
in 2011, 60% of New Zealand children aged 8-17 reported experiencing a negative situation online, while 35% reported a very negative experience.
While we may not be able to easily relate to the growing pains of our 'digital native' children who wouldn't know what life without a mobile or internet access is like, we can begin to understand some of the unique pressures they face by talking about it with them.
We can Help our Children Cope with Bullies
New Zealand internet safety authority Netsafe indicated in a recent roundtable event that cyberbullying is more likely to occur when students are in transition, for example changing schools or heading back after the holiday break, a time when new social hierarchies are being established in the school environment.
The message is clear - we need to talk with our kids, because they are less likely to bring it up with us directly.
For the past few years Norton has been challenging parents to be more proactive and take steps to understand their children’s behaviours and habits online. We advise parents to sit down with their kids and have 'the talk'. Life's big issues need to be discussed, and just as parents approach other big issues with 'the talk', we need to learn more about how our kids are using the internet, what they are doing and that they are aware of what’s appropriate or not online.
Norton developed the Family Online Safety Guide[ii] as a helpful resource for parents to get the background information they need to start having a discussion with their children. The guide helps arm parents with starter questions around the use of passwords, how kids connect with others, and questions on privacy. Additionally we’ve a few tips on how and where to instigate this conversation – an excellent place is in the car as it gives children both physical space and time to open up and answer the questions.
Spotting the Signs
The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University provides a good summary of the types of children who may be targeted by bullying, including children changing schools, either due to a move or transition from primary to secondary schools, children of greater or lower family income levels as compared to the average, and children whose appearance may deviate from the “norm” (overweight, underweight, glasses, or disabled for example). If a child starts to withdraw from school or their social life online, is moody or easily distressed, has damage to his personal items, has difficulty sleeping or unexplained cuts, bruises or marks on their skin – then they might be facing bullying at school or online.
According to the research, children who bully others often have high levels of energy, an ability to manipulate others, take delight in getting their own way and have difficulty expressing empathy or dealing with emotions and conflict.
If you suspect your child of being a bully, or being bullied, the first step to addressing the issue is to talk about it with her or him, and attempt to get them to open up and have an honest chat about it, without fear of repercussions or restrictions from devices or the internet.
Minimising the Risk
It is important that parents pay attention to clues and signs to predict whether their children could become a target. There are actions that we as parents can do to minimise the risks and ensure our kids know what to do if they are picked on by a bully.
- Set ground rules together – sit down and develop some ground rules for internet usage together with your kids so that they are included. The recent story[iii] of the mother in the US who gave her son an iPhone with an 18-point contract including “Mum will always know the password” is an interesting example of one approach used to set the rules.
- Monitor your children’s internet usage – depending on their age, you may wish to monitor and limit the amount of time children have access to the internet or their mobile phones. Software such as Norton Family and Norton 360 Multi-Device are just some of the ways you can keep tabs on both their internet activity and secure their computers or mobile devices.
- Don’t wait until it’s too late to have the talk – if you wait until your child is in high school, chances are they have already been exposed to bullying behaviour online. Start talking to your children about cyberbullying and online safety as they begin to go online. Initiate an open dialogue so they know they can come to you with any questions from the get-go.
- Keep talking about it with your children - sadly, bullying of any nature can have devastating effects on our children, particularly if it is ongoing and relentless. Last year, the tragic story of 15-year-old Canadian student Amanda Todd[iv] was heard in media around the world, after she took her own life following extensive cyberbullying. She had cried out for help in a public YouTube video that reverberated online and started further discussion about the impact of cyberbullying. Her parents believed that things were getting better after the public response to her video, but for Amanda it all became just too much.
In New Zealand, there are a number of services that are available for children who need someone they can talk to. Youthline (0800 376 633) and Whatsup (0800 942 8787) are two services where young people can call in to chat about some of the pressures they face.
Take the opportunity to talk with your children, and let’s help empower them to handle or cope with bullying behavior online and off.
[i]Nzherald.co.nz, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/internet/news/article.cfm?c_id=137&objectid=10867322 24.02.13
[iii] Mother’s 18 point contract for son’s iPhone – SMH: http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/mobiles/i-will-always-know-the-password-mother-gives-son-an-iphone-for-christmas-along-with-18point-contract-20130103-2c68e.html
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