One of the great things about writing a weekly column is the regular feedback and education that I get from readers. I recently wrote about ways in which any parent could feel comfortable teaching their kids at home regardless of their traditional “education” chops. One of the responses I received was really a wake-up call about yet another way in which our K-12 teachers are essential - not simply to our kids’ education but to their overall safety and wellbeing. And honestly, most parents don’t have a clue about the scale or scope of certain social problems or what they can and -;especially now with the wide-spread adoption of virtual schools - need to do to communicate with, support, and protect their kids.
Bullying has never been a bigger problem in our schools and cyber-bullying is exploding along with it -; something our kids encounter every day. Even the smartest and strongest kids get sucked into these situations by their friends, because kids are pack animals. Talents and special skills are no protection either as anyone who’s watched AGT can attest, since every third or fourth young performer seems to tell a sad story of being bullied. Peer pressure is intensified by the constant flow of messages across numerous digital channels, which are not only available but increasingly central to their social lives. Shaming of all sorts is a sad staple of social media, especially for pre-teens and teens. Trolls are everywhere and increasingly amplified by bots. FOMO is a perpetual preoccupation made inescapable by the constant sharing and spreading of every event, activity, romance, and embarrassment. If you’re not in the pictures or at the parties, you’re nowhere.
Even worse, as our kids spend more and more time (starting in the new school year) at home and on their screens, we can realistically expect everything that’s already awful online to become an ever-greater problem and concern. Cruel kids with keyboards and various degrees of anonymity can be horrible and too often are. But even worse are the perverts and other predators who are having a field day on the web targeting kids of all ages. The Federal Bureau of Investigation flatly states that one in five kids who go online will be sexually solicited.
And here’s where things are going to get especially hairy. Teachers are the first line of defense for many kids. Teachers typically have reported about 40% of the cases of peer-to-peer abuse because they have daily, direct and personal exposure to our kids. Concerned and observant teachers are critical in detecting changes in attitude, incipient anxiety and depression, and a growing lack of interest/participation in school because they would see it day to day. But in the new digital world of cyber school, teachers are at least one step removed from their students.
Parents, on the other hand, are generally lucky if they get a passing “school was fine” comment from their kids as the youngsters hurriedly head to their rooms to get online. Mothers believe that they can intuit and understand what their children can’t or won’t say, but they’re largely kidding themselves. This is why so many young adult suicides come as a shock to family and loved ones. The signs, signals, and behavioral changes are all there, but you’re only likely to pick them up if you’re interested, educated, aware and present. With the shift to household learning, and teachers less and less intimately connected to your kids, the responsibility and the burden of observation and action is shifting right now to you. As a parent, you’ve also got to be a shrink, a psychic and a social worker all rolled into one big bundle.
The good news is that there are smart people thinking about this problem with some concrete suggestions and tips for all of us. I spoke with Amanda Altman who’s the CEO of Kristi House, a non-profit, child advocacy center in Florida, about what parents and other caregivers need to know to identify, interrupt, and prevent various forms of online abuse. Here are a few concrete ideas and suggestions.
(1) Everything starts with regular and open communication with your kids. Make this a daily ritual and an opportunity to share rather than a pro forma “Hey how was your day?” Feel free and get in the habit of interacting with your kids online and across the various social networks so they know you’re there and that you care. Also make it easy for your kids to come to you with problems at school or with creeps online and make it clear that there’s no shame in being subjected to this kind of abuse and it’s not their fault.
(2) Set up your kid’s computer or tablet in a common area and an open space rather than behind closed doors. This may be easier said than done but, if you can’t do it physically, then use parental controls and technology to set limits. Individual devices and Wi-Fi can be automatically silenced each night at a certain time with controls provided by your internet provider.
(3) Check all your kid’s profiles on the various social networks. Get over the crap that you’ll inevitably get about their precious privacy and trusting them and make it clear that your job and responsibility are to make sure they are safe. Most parents have no idea of how much control they can have (if they take the time to investigate and educate themselves) over their kids’ devices, which is to say, substantial and significant. Make sure that all your family’s devices are set to the strictest possible privacy controls.
(4) Make it your business to know what games and apps are on your kid’s phone (and check regularly) and set up the phone so that your permission is required for them to download and use certain apps and games. Here again, the controls are there if you take the time to learn about them. Get ready to hear ad nauseum about what other kids’ parents let them do and play.
(5) Get some serious help if there’s a problem. Alert the teachers and/or school authorities. Use hotlines, tip lines and other law enforcement channels if necessary and, wherever possible, save the evidence, emails, posts, chats, threads, etc.
This is a serious situation and your kids’ safety depends on getting it right. Make your rules stick. Kids are kids and will constantly test your interest, patience, and resolve. And they’ll try to break the rules as well. That’s part of the process of growing up. Here’s a final suggestion: don’t threaten them, because threats won’t work. Either punish them or forgive them. Eventually, in either case, they’ll love you for it.