Last week’s suicide of 15 year old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, MA has communities around the country reeling. Phoebe didn’t just suffer taunts, mean looks and harassment at school. She was cyberbullied: tortured online and by phone.
Phoebe’s death – and an explosion in cyberbullying worldwide – are telegraphing an emergency message to schools and families: we must take action now. Yet the vast majority of schools decline to intervene with real consequences when cyberbullying incidents occur.
Why? Because, school officials say, it’s happening off school grounds. I understand the legal issues involved, but I get really angry when I hear this argument. Schools are terrific at using technology to connect classrooms to the moon via NASA and to students in other countries. Classrooms without borders are swell when they teach – but when students start dehumanizing each other using the very same technology, and it threatens their education and safety at school, well, we can’t go there.
Cyberbullying has intensified the experience of getting bullied by literally shattering the walls between school and home. There is no escape. As Parry Aftab has said, cyberbullying follows you everywhere: home, summer camp, to Grandma’s house.
Which means that kids are being suffocated and overwhelmed by an onslaught of abuse. They are unable to find refuge from the torment. Suicide, for some, may feel like the only way out.
Fact is, it’s not enough to say to a kid, “So don’t go online. Don’t pick up the phone.” Could you follow that advice? I sure couldn’t. Young people are passionate about their reputations. They’re also developmentally unable to understand that anything beyond their personal hell exists.
With a recent study showing that youth spend nearly every waking moment with a device in their hands, I want to share some of my advice to parents on how to talk with your child about cyberbullying and digital citizenship. If you haven’t had this conversation, or one like it, do not pass go. The time is now.
1. Begin with a discussion. Raise the issue by talking about what you’ve heard or read. “It seems like cyberbullying is becoming a big deal lately.” Mention Phoebe’s suicide. Ask your child what she’s seen.
2. Let her know you’re there if she’s in trouble, no matter what – even if she’s partly responsible for a situation. Assure her that you’ll keep a problem between you when you can, and that you’ll be open to discussing it if she doesn’t want you to intervene (never promise that you won’t intervene). Your bottom line: this is a serious issue, and if she’s in trouble, you don’t want her to be alone, no matter what.
3. Ensure her cell phone and computer have screen locks that are password protected. Find other preventative steps you can take to keep your child safe here.
4. Let her know your policy on cyberbullying. For example: “I want to make sure we’re both clear on some rules around your use of technology. I expect you to conduct yourself online the same way you do in real life. That means making sure you treat people with kindness and respect at all times.”
5. Talk about some examples of what breaking the rules might look like. Use some of what you heard in the opening discussion you had to get specific about what’s not okay. Make sure she understands she is expected to steer clear of the following behaviors: She is expected not to use another person’s cell phone or computer without his/her permission; to circulate embarrassing photographs or video about another person; to forward hurtful or embarrassing messages or media; to use anonymous or unrecognizable screen names to communicate; to use foul or abusive language that could embarrass or hurt others. You may want to create an ethical Internet use contract together. See a sample here.
6. Explain your stance. Don’t just say “no;” explain why. Use the conversation as an opportunity to talk about the values that are important to you and your family: respect, kindness, integrity, and compassion.
7. Let her know technology is a privilege. “Being able to have a phone or computer is no different from being able to drive a car. When you get your license, it’s because you’ve proven you’re mature enough to follow rules and take others into consideration. The same will be true for tech use. If you aren’t mature enough to act with respect, you will lose your access.”
8. Emphasize the positive: “I see you as a person with enormous kindness, integrity and respect for others. I expect you to be that same person when you’re using an electronic device.
It’s never too early to have this conversation. Talk to your kids about cyberbullying, and start talking to school officials about getting involved. South Hadley High School began every day last week with a moment of silence to remember Phoebe. Silence is the last thing we need on this issue. Let’s not let Phoebe die in vain.
9. Encourage empathy. Talk with your kids about what Phoebe may have been feeling when she was being bullied. Many are now identifying with Phoebe in death. By considering her experience before she died, kids can identify with her in life — and reflect on behaviors and situations they have real power to change.