Monthly Archives: September 2011

Could your teen be a cyberbully?

This evening I’ll spend some time talking to a group of parents of students entering Grade 8. Their principal specifically wanted me to spend some time addressing the topic of cyberbullying. It’s a real hot button topic, a trigger word that brings to mind the spectre of antisocial, angry schoolyard bullies further emboldened by their Internet connections to extend their victims’ torment to a much larger audience. Modern day trolls. Problem cases.

This concern isn’t too surprising, given the prevalence of the problem. One 2008 University of Toronto study found over half of respondents reported being cyberbullied.

The funny thing is that cyberbullies don’t always fit into that mold. They don’t always fit the same profile as the old-fashioned bullies who might have tormented our peers when we were in school. Their parents rarely suspect what their kids are up to. Sometimes their friends are surprised to learn about it. Sometimes they say they were just joking, and didn’t think what they were doing was really bullying. Occasionally they are just naive or unsophisticated enough to not be aware of how their comments or actions constitute bullying.

They could be my kids. Or yours.

When parents worry about cyberbullies, they almost always approach the subject from the perspective of potential victims. They worry about how other kids — mean antisocial kids — might hurt their children. They don’t realize how easily their kids, good kids, can do something online that proves deeply hurtful to someone else. One recent study of 1,500 parents found that not a single one of them believed their kids could be cyberbullies. But cyberbullies clearly exist, and they have moms and dads too.

A whispered not-so-nice comment in the school cafeteria may vanish from memory a few minutes later, but the same comment texted, or posted on someone’s Facebook wall, or sent off in an email, is a profoundly public, often irrevocable damaging blow. Kids don’t always get that the Internet is written in ink (hell, a lot of adults don’t realize this either, so what can we expect?).

Truth is, our culture tends to treat the subject of online reputations in very cavalier ways (check out this Roger cellphone commercial and this T-Mobile one). On the one hand we tell them how important this is, on the other we fill magazines, gossip columns and websites with celebrity gossip and intrusive speculation about the private lives of others.

But the acid test for cyberbullying must always be the end result. If someone is hurt by it, then it is wrong, even if we “just thought it was a joke.” It is little consolation to any teenager that their “friends'” comments about their weight or sexuality wasn’t meant to get forwarded to the whole school. It makes no difference to a teacher secretly taped in class and photoshopped for ridicule that their students were just having a laugh. It is damaging and destructive and can ruin reputations. It can result in depression, health problems, drop in grades, violations of personal privacy and even suicide (including, just last Thursday, that of a 17-year-old boy in Hamilton, Ontario).

McGill professor Dr. Shaheen Sharif has put together a fabulous website on this subject, called Define the Line. A slide show on the topic traces the legal evolution of cyberbullying, with one key Quebec case involving a 17-year-old (Aubry vs. Editions Vice Versa) finding that a teenager’s sensitivity to teasing by her friends counts as foreseeable harm: the right to privacy trumps freedom of expression.

And while most cyberbullying is persistent and sustained and involves ongoing violations and threats using social media, cellphones and the Internet, it is also important to understand that sometimes they are one-off occurrences perpetuated by teens lacking the sophistication, judgement and tech savvy to understand what the consequences are for someone else. I have seen this happen on several occasions among my own daughters’ groups of online friends. It doesn’t matter. The harm done is exactly the same.

And as parents it is our jobs to make sure our kids are properly supervised and held accountable for their actions. Schools need to be part of the education and awareness, particularly since a lot of cyberbullying happens on the ground within school environments and communities. Article 1460 of the Quebec Civil Code stipulates that even non-parents “entrusted with the custody, supervision or education of a minor can be held liable for the act or fault of this minor.” Similar legislation has been introduced in the United States (although still subject to dispute).

Freedom is a privilege to be earned trough the consistent demonstration of good judgment. Despite what many people think, privacy is not a sacred right for a 13-year-old with a Facebook account. As a parent, you should have passwords to your children’s accounts. You should regular review their online activity with them. There should be ongoing discussions about permissible behaviour, both at home and in school. Schools should have clear social media policies in place. There should be clear, consistent consequences (at home and in school) for inappropriate use, including withdrawal of online privileges.

For more information and resources:

Stop a Bully (Canada-wide antibullying program) – http://stopabully.ca/resources/anti-bullying-materials

Stand up to Bullying (Red Cross program) – http://www.redcross.ca/article.asp?id=24700&tid=108

Cyberbullying pioneer researcher Bill Belsey’s – www.cyberbullying.ca

Media Awareness Network (Be WebAware) – http://www.bewebaware.ca/english/aboutus.html

Why you don’t need to make sure your teen is happy

Have you ever done any of the following things: driven your child’s forgotten homework to school? Brought them the lunch they neglected to pack themselves? Softened a well-deserved punishment because you felt bad for him/ her? Backtracked on promised consequences for poor behaviour or disrespect? Ignored a broken rule because you just didn’t want to get into an argument with them?

If so, you’re guilty of trying to make them happy. And you were almost certainly wrong.

At a school meeting last year, my daughters’ elementary school principal made a very compelling argument. She said that all parents want to make their kids happy, but they are often shortsighted. We don’t need them to necessarily be happy today. Or right now. Especially if they’ve done something wrong.

Instead, we need to take the long view. Ultimately, we want them to be happy adults: contented, well-adjusted people taking their rightful place in our communities. We want them to be reasonably successful in the career of their choice, surrounded by people with whom they belong and share love.

But right now? Today? This morning, when they realized they hadn’t pulled their school uniform top out of the dryer like you asked, and it was all wrinkled and they wanted you to iron it? When they left their gym uniform at home the day of soccer tryouts? When they started a fight with their little sister or asked you to buy them the really cool jeans that everyone is wearing, even though it’s really not in the budget?

They don’t need that kind of happy. You are, in fact, doing them a long-term disservice by saving their butts, hovering over and rescuing them, swooping in to cover responsibilities that should rightly be their own. Protecting them from negative consequences to their own actions. Ignoring rude, disrespectful or anti-social behaviour. Spoiling them with consumer items they don’t really need, especially if they cause financial strain. If you never say “no.”

That’s not real happy anyway (though you could be forgiven for thinking it is when their eyes light up at the sight of those jeans or hand-delivered homework). It’s not the kind of lasting, grounded happiness that they will want as adults. The kind of well-earned, well-deserved happiness that comes from knowing your responsibilities.

What’s more, these attempts to make them happy all the time now when they are younger, is more likely to work against what should be your ultimate goal: turning them into happy, responsible, capable adults. To do that, they need to learn some hard, cause and effect lessons when they are young.

Western culture defines happiness in curious ways, usually around acquisition and consumption of goods, ease of living, always having to “feel good.” But the science of happiness (yes, there is such a thing) tells us that happiness is an innate quality, a way of looking at the world, generally independent of the things around us (with the exception of extreme poverty and deprivation). The most important correlates for happy people were close ties with friends and/or family. A study of lottery winners and accident victims left paralyzed found that, while both groups experienced temporary swings in their levels of happiness based on their dramatic change of circumstances, within a few months both groups returned to their baseline levels of happiness.

We need to resist the constant pressure to be happy at all costs. Another interesting piece of research suggests that the constant emphasis on needing to feel good is a risk factor for drug and alcohol addiction among teens. Behaviours like drug use, drinking alcohol, sex and gambling have a chemical payoff, at least in the short-term. But they quickly need more and more of whatever it is to get the same high, and therein lies the dark spiral of addiction.

So even though it can be really hard as a parent to imagine your kid missing lunch at school, getting in trouble for not having their homework, or missing a night out with friends because their behaviour at the family dinner table was inexcusable, you are actually doing them a tremendous favour.

Steel your resolve. That unhappy teenager may well thank you for it in 20 years.

A parent’s thoughts on early September

8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a day I knew I’d never forget.

My two-year-old twins were heading off for their very first day of preschool. They had their lunches packed, the backpacks full of extra clothes, wipes and smocks for painting. I was more emotionally wound up than they were, and I was almost disappointed when they just kissed me goodbye, and walked hand in hand into their very first day of school.

The only tears were my own, and I desperately, sheepishly blinked them back. There were no pudgy arms clutching at my legs, no high little girl voices begging me to take them home. I was proud of their determination, but not quite used to the idea that my baby girls might be growing up.

I got in my car, a tangle of conflicted emotions, and turned on the radio.

It was 9 a.m. September 11, 2001.

When the first reports of trouble in New York trickled in, I didn’t think much of it, preoccupied as I was by my own microdrama. Then the  announcer mentioned the World Trade Center, and I thought about my brother, whose law firm was in the process of moving their offices into one of the towers. I called my mom, who hadn’t heard anything. She couldn’t reach his cellphone, but we weren’t yet alarmed.

I stopped for coffee with a friend, asking the teenage barista to turn the radio over to CBC, and we stared at each other in horror as news of a second plane hitting the towers was reported. I ran home to keep trying to reach my brother. No answer. Cellphone service was in chaos.

Like everyone I knew, I watched the world implode upon a TV screen. I couldn’t breathe. The sheer scale of hatred, of callousness, of remorseless cruelty was astonishing. It was impossible that this destruction, this pain was being played out live on camera. It was unthinkable that we had to just sit there and watch. But we did. We couldn’t turn away even when the images burned into our eyes, seared themselves into our minds.

We were witnesses to the murders; our very witnessing the catalyst for it happening. A spectacle laid out in living colour for the hungry eyes of our cameras.

It took a couple of hours to track down my brother. His firm’s move had been postponed because of construction delays. Only a few people had been moved over to the World Trade Center that morning; one woman from their office died.

My daughters have an uncle today because of construction delays. They have three cousins. Construction delays.

I remember thinking, with typical shortsightedness, how lucky I was to have children too young to understand what was happening. Two-year-olds don’t watch the news or scan the front page of the newspaper in a daily race for the weather and comics. I was almost giddy with relief. How on earth could a parent ever explain this to a child?

I forgot that they wouldn’t be two forever. That I would have to explain over and over again as they grew how such a thing could happen. Their innocence waning as their capacity to comprehend expanded. Every time we saw a picture of the towers. Heard about the memorials. Each time we visited New York City.

Every September.

I didn’t realize that I would have to give answers to unanswerable questions. To the two-year-olds who are now 12. To their little sister, whose very existence I hadn’t even foreseen that morning ten years ago. To my future grandchildren.

We will be searching for those answers for many, many years. Forever. Like the Holocaust, and Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and Tiananmen Square, but newer and closer and fresher. With really good production values.

Teaching our kids about the grim side of human nature is never an easy thing to do. In the olden days we had dark inflections to our nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We had cradles that fell and witches in the woods who ate errant children, desperate girls who cut off their toes to fit the prince’s glass slipper.

We don’t do that anymore. We’ve scrubbed our stories, sanitizing the imaginary preschool world the same way we Purell their little hands. Have you ever watched the original Disney versions of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty? Tiana and Arielle wouldn’t last a day in their world.

When natural disasters occur and people die, we can point to the arbitrary and unpredictable whims of nature. It’s upsetting, but somehow we feel we can contain our children’s fears through education and action. But terrorism, war, mass murder, school massacres? That’s a whole other story.

I wish I could say I have the answers here, but I don’t. The truth is, I still don’t know what to say to my girls about September 11th. I tried to dole out the nuggets of information sparingly when they were younger, offered some context as they got older and learned more on their own. But I knew some time ago that I couldn’t protect them from knowing any more. And I shouldn’t. The plump, smiling toddlers smiling innocently into the camera at the exact moment the first plane fell out of the sky have morphed into tall, lithe preteens. They cringe and reluctantly agree when I ask to take their picture on the first day of high school.

I can only hold them close as long as they let me and hope they get more from remembering that day than the fear and hatred that made it possible in the first place.