While the joys of parenthood are many, it's natural to worry about the inevitable milestones that shape a child's independence, such as their first solo walk to school, first sleep-over or first teen party. In our technology-driven world, parents must now consider a new growing-up moment, namely preparing kids for their first smartphone or web device.
As a technology enthusiast, I'm the first person to rave about the safety and educational benefits that children gain from all the Internet-enabled gadgets they crave. However, Bullying Awareness Week (November 13 to 19) should remind us of the risks that can pop up on those brightly glowing screens, including the danger of cyberbullying, and the importance of parental vigilance.
Fortunately, awareness of the issue is rising. Primus' 2014 survey, Protecting Canadian Families Online, found that parents' fear of cyberbullying outranked their concerns about drug and alcohol use by their kids or teenage pregnancy. Large numbers of parents acknowledged that their children have ready access to the Internet, whether through the family computer, a personal computer or tablet, or by smart phone (since more than 26 per cent of kids are equipped with their own mobile phone and data plan by the time they're in the fourth grade).
Only eight per cent of kids will actually admit being bullied online to their parents.
What's more, one in five parents admitted to knowing that their children between age eight and 10 have a Facebook account despite the 13-year age requirement for having an account.
Canadians unsure how to handle cyberbullying
Despite this simmering unease about their kids' online access, our survey also revealed that parents are not well prepared to proactively address their concerns. Less than half of parents restrict the amount of time their children spend online each day, and just a third of parents have spoken to their children about online bullying by age eight -- or regularly ask their kids questions about cyber-bullying.
Perhaps the most troubling statistic: 89 per cent of parents feel their children would inform them if they were being cyberbullied. The reality, according to cyberbullying experts, is that only eight per cent of kids will actually admit being bullied online to their parents.
These findings speak to the need for parents to take a much more active role in their children's online lives and educate themselves on the best ways to protect their family.
That's not always an easy task, particularly for parents who are not comfortable with rapidly changing social media tools or the accompanying jargon, points out Dr. Wendy Craig, Professor and Head of Psychology at Queens' University, and Scientific Co-Director of PREVNet, Canada's leading authority on bullying prevention.
To overcome this generational communication barrier, Primus partnered with PREVNet to launch Canada's first e-learning program to help parents and youth confront online bullying. Launched recently as part of Bullying Awareness Week, CyberGuard - Cyberbullying Truth, Tips and Tactics features practical tools for parents, including hands-on modules to prompt conversations among adults and youth, activities to be completed together and quizzes to test knowledge and debunk myths.
This program is the result of a multi-year partnership between Primus and PREVNet to address cyberbullying, which has included awareness campaigns to introduce online safety resources. Among the key tips that are discussed further on our e-learning site:
- Start talking to children earlier about the dangers of cyberbullying and the importance of positive online relationships. As soon as children have access to the Internet, it's the right time to speak with them about the dangers of cyberbullying and how to report threatening behaviour.
- Educate children on the dos and don'ts of acceptable online behaviour. Some of these rules include never sharing personal information or photos in a chat room, never share cellphone numbers or email addresses unless you know and trust the person, and never posting, emailing or forwarding sensitive/private photos of yourself or anyone else.
- Teach children to be a part of the solution, not the problem. Parents should inform their children that even if they didn't create the original hurtful email or message, by passing it on they are now participating in online bullying. On the other hand, by deleting the message and refusing to pass it on, they become part of the solution.
- And, keep the dialogue open with your kids. Check in with your kids regularly to discuss online topics and technology they enjoy. Let your kids be the expert who teaches you about a new social media feature. Encourage your child to tell you about worrying incidents they witness or experience without fear of criticism or threat of taking away their technology.
While these tasks may feel uncomfortable at first, they're critical to help children develop the right social technology skills, build strong self-esteem and learn to interact with others in healthy, responsible ways.
Just as you teach your kids about road safety, "stranger danger" and avoiding peer pressure, it's time to talk openly about cyberbullying. If you've noticed your child's growing fascination with technology, there's no time to delay.
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Bullying can be an incredibly isolating experience, and many victims feel that they are alone–that something about them, specifically, has brought this on. Explain to your child that bullying is something that can happen to anyone: boys, girls, preschoolers, high schoolers, kids at large schools and kids at small schools. This means there is a large group of people impacted by bullying, and if we all work together, we can certainly make a difference.
A common reaction to bullying is encouraging the victim to ignore the bully. "They just want a reaction," people say, and if you deny them the reaction, they'll go away. That's not always the case. Sometimes, when the bully realizes they are being ignored, they can feel a sense of power over their victim that can actually make the situation worse.
Asking your child basic questions about their day and their experience at school can help you catch a problem sooner. Ask how a specific class was, or who they sat with at lunch. Ask who is trying out for the team, or who is going to local fair that weekend. These harmless questions tell your child that you care, but they can also help you detect changes in your child's situation that may indicate a bullying problem.
While helping your child prepare a speech or enrolling them in self-defense courses might seem like an empowering solution, you're sending the message to your child that this problem is theirs, and that they have to handle it alone. Instead, discuss what some solutions might be and involve your child in the decision making process.
The National Crime Prevention Council reports that 20 to 43 percent of middle and high school school students have reported being victims of cyber bullying. Encourage your child to protect themselves by following these two guidelines: 1. Never say or do anything online that you wouldn't say or do in person. 2. Never share any information that you wouldn't tell a stranger.
While we'd like to think we know everything about our children and their friends, don't express disbelief if they say someone has done something that shocks you. Your child needs to know that they can trust you. Asking them to provide evidence or saying that someone "would never do that" can come across as you taking the side of someone other than your child. Instead, be as supportive as possible and listen to their side.
A recent study of children ages 9 to 12, showed that 56 percent said that they usually either say or do something to try to stop bullying or tell someone who can help (Brown, Birch, & Kancherla, 2005). Make sure your child knows who he or she can talk to if they have something they want to share, whether that is you, a school counselor, a teacher or a coach.
Explain the importance of keeping online passwords private, even from close friends. Your child may be thinking that sharing a password with a close friend is harmless and convenient, but explain that anyone with their password could impersonate them online and embarrass them. If they insist that the friend would never do that, remind them that the friend could share their password, either intentionally or unintentionally, and someone else would have that same power.
While your first reaction may be to protect your child by calling the parent of the bully or confront the child yourself, this is not always a good solution. Not only is this this rarely effective, it may even prove fodder for additional bullying. Your child wants to feel empowered and involved in the solution, so discuss options with him or her and work together to decide on a plan of action.
Your child may be embarrassed or afraid to talk about what is happening to them. This is normal. Rather than pressuring your child into speaking before they are ready, just make it clear that you are willing to listen and be a source of support for them. Once they feel comfortable, they will know that they can open up to you and seek your advice. Better yet, if you've had this conversation preemptively, before a problem arises, your child will know right away that you can be their partner in finding a solution.
Green Giant's Raise A Giant site includes a page that lets you read letters other parents have written to empower their children. You can write your own letter and explore their other resources, including videos and sharable infographics. PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center site also has a page with resources like informational handouts, fact sheets, educational toolkits, and the "We Will Generation." You can also browse the video page to see if some of their video resources would be helpful for you or for your child. Green Giant's Raise A Giant site includes a page that lets you write a letter to empower your child, but you can also read the letters other parents have written to inspire your talks with your child.