After Mary Clark watched a recent episode of the Dr. Phil show about teens using the Internet to bully or threaten other kids, the Fairfax, Va., mother sat down with her 14-year-old daughter, Katie, for a heart-to-heart. They discussed the dangers that lurk online. Her daughter even told her about being invited to join a social networking group that was set up to ostracize a more awkward, less popular student — something Katie had refused to do.
“Kids always get picked on,” Clark says. “This is just a more blatant way to do it — and it’s a worse way to do it because everyone else knows.”
So-called cyber bullying has become the new version of beating someone up at the bus stop, but online, it’s more under the radar. The Internet is now akin to a bathroom wall, where teens can write graffiti about one another — often anonymously. Teens use social networking sites to marshal forces against other students. Though cyber bullying is one hot-button issue kids could face online, there are others. For example, teens break up with each other by changing the relationship status on their personal page, so all their friends can see. Or they discover they weren’t invited to parties when they see a video of the party on the Web featuring friends who made the cut.
Here is how to spot the warning signs that your teen could be dealing with cyber issues and some expert advice on how to open the lines of communication and resolve the issues:
Seeing the Warning Signs
If your kids are suffering from cyber dilemmas, you might notice the same kinds of red flags they exhibit when dealing with offline issues, such as bullying, breakups, rumors or hurt feelings. Except the symptoms may be worse if the drama is playing out online, experts say.
“What’s interesting is that things online can actually have more of a profound impact on them,” says Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation (Palgrave Macmillan 2007). “Between you and the person on the other end of this is a nice screen. The screen is somewhat protective. If it’s someone you don’t know and they’re bullying you online, they feel free to say anything they want to say. Being behind the screen makes it seem like you can say more because it’s anonymous.”
These are some of the signs that your child may be struggling with cyber issues such as cyber bullying, online harassment, cyber stalking or other Internet nuisances:
- Changed work habits Did your child’s grades slip this semester? Are they suddenly failing tests? “They may not be as good at doing their homework,” Rosen says. This is a sign that something may be wrong or that something — or someone — may be bothering your child.
- Losing sleep or sleeping too much “They may be losing sleep or be reluctant to go to school,” says Anne Collier, co-director of ConnectSafely, a web site for parents, teens and educators alike about the impact of social web sites. No one wants to be confronted by their abusers. They may be worried and be unable to sleep or, conversely, they may be sluggish and want to sleep more because of depression. “These are signs of peer-to-peer problems,” Collier says.
- Increased irritability Does your son fly off the handle more easily? Is your daughter snapping at everyone? “They might be more irritable and decide they’re sick all the time or don’t want to come to dinner,” Rosen says. “These are basically psychological issues they’re dealing with.”
- Extra insecurity Cyber bullying or harassment can take a toll on a teen’s self-esteem. “They may be feeling and acting very lonely or humiliated or extra insecure,” Collier says.
- Spending more time online If you see a rise in the amount of time your teen spends at the computer — and if that increased time is leading to some of the symptoms listed above — then it might be another warning that something is amiss online. Keep track of your teen’s computer time and talk to him if you notice changes. Be careful about withdrawing Internet privileges entirely, Collier says, which could lead to more acting out or a feeling of isolation. Instead, come up with a plan to curtail usage.
Helping Kids Resolve Cyber Issues
When your kids were younger, you talked to them about the dangers of crossing the street. You may have also talked to them about the potential to be bullied at school and to report any problems to an adult. In the same vein, experts say, you should be talking to your children about the risks of the virtual world on the Internet.
“As they’re creating social networks and making friends online, there are things that can happen out there,” says Rosen. “A lot of things happen because this is the Internet. There is this sense of anonymity they can hide behind. Kids aren’t necessarily savvy about that.”
Dealing with cyber issues requires parents to open the lines of communication. Your kids need to feel that they can confide in you. Here are some guidelines on how to open up those channels and help your child resolve online difficulties:
- Make talks a common occurrence Rosen suggests starting weekly 15-minute parent-child conversations that can include talking about their experiences online. “Try to do them in an unassuming way,” he says. “Family dinners are a good time to have these discussions.”
- Listen, listen and listen “Parents should talk about one-third of the time and kids should talk about two-thirds of the time,” Rosen says. “You really have to listen to what your kids are saying. They’re really the experts now. Most of us parents haven’t experienced this firsthand.”
- Remember it’s not about technology It is not about the computer, Collier says. “Technology is just a tool,” she adds. “If it’s real cyber bullying, it’s about school. The emerging definition of cyber bullying is that it’s linked to their school life.”
- Talk to your children about their own online and offline behavior Studies have found that the perpetrators of cyber bullying are most likely someone at your child’s school, Collier says. Talk to your child about what may be going on at school that might have spilled over to the Internet. Work together to understand the situation before deciding on the next course of action, such as contacting another child’s parents or the school.
Overall, if you’re already aware of your child’s cyber dilemma, “that’s half the battle,” Collier says. “Kids so often go into stealth mode.”
And in her case, that’s why Clark used the Dr. Phil program to raise the topic with her daughter to curb trouble before it started. “Fortunately,” Clark says, “I don’t think it’s been a real issue for her so far.”
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