Tag Archives: cyberbullying

Lessons from Rheteah – how to support targets of sex-related bullying

Rheteah ParsonsThere are many terrible lessons to be learned from the tragic suicide of 17-year-old Nova Scotia teenager Rhetea Parsons, but one in particular jumped out at me. I was struck by what seemed to be the complete failure of her high school to support her in the wake of the sexually explicit pictures (depicting her alleged rape) circulated in the community.

First, a little context: in 2011, Rheteah Parsons said she was raped by four teenage boys at a house party. The circumstances of that event is the topic of another blog post to come, and many have written about what seems to be disinterested or haphazard police investigation that resulted in charges eventually being dropped.

In the aftermath of the alleged sexual assaults, the boys distributed cellphone photos of the attack, depicting (according to reports) Rheteah vomiting while being assaulted and at least one of the boys was shown smiling and giving the camera a thumbs up during sexual interactions. These photos got passed all over the school, and Rheteah was branded a slut and bullied viciously by her peers.

When the distraught teenager killed herself last week, her father attributed it to “disappointment,” not rape or bullying. Rheteah Parsons appears to have been let down by all of the institutions around her charged with her safety: her school, her community, the system of law and order.

In a digital world, the stakes and politics of bullying are magnified exponentially. The Cole Harbour, NS high school attended by Rheteah failed miserably. There are a number of things any school must do when these kinds of sexual images of students are distributed, because the students depicted (almost always girls) are extremely vulnerable to repeated bullying, coercion, blackmail and assault. (Click to tweet this.)

Those kinds of sexual images almost always put the kids at risk. From classmates. From kids at other schools. From complete strangers on the Internet.

In this new normal, it isn’t enough to sensitize kids to bullying or Internet safety. We need to talk to them about sexting. About slut-shaming. About how to respond to a peer who has suffered the indignity of having those kinds of pictures spread online. Ideally, this should begin with prevention initiatives to help them understand what it’s all about.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has created an excellent Resource Guide for Parents who are dealing with this kind of sexual exploitation of their children, whether their kids posted the pictures themselves or had peers do it. Click on the link to download it as a PDF. You can also view a short video about this issue here. Cybertips.ca also offers this well-written guide for kids who are dealing with sexual images online, whether it’s for themselves or a friend.

This resource guide also has excellent advice for parents of kids who perpetrate this kind of sexual exploitation of others by disseminating these images or commenting on them in anti-social ways.

All parents should look this over, whether your kids have been impacted or not.

Parent responses to the sexual exploitation of their kids online

  • Reassure your child.
  • Engage in fact-finding, but don’t feel the need to view the content. Your child may already by humiliated and horrified by its dissemination, and knowing their parent has seen it may make it even worse. 
  • Explore the steps the school can take. This will depend on whether the other parties involved are students. They can also assist in having the images deleted.
  • Address content of concern, and take steps to have it removed. The Resource Guide walks you through steps on how to do this.
  • Keep your child abreast of what is happening and collaborate in a plan for moving forward. They need to feel they are part of the solution.
  • Outline with your child the consequences for their behaviours if they were involved in the production or dissemination of the content. This may include restricting Internet and cellphone use.
  • Help them identify sympathetic and supportive friends. This is too much to deal with all alone.
  • Create a safety plan with the school. At very least, they can sensitize the other students and be vigilant for follow-up bullying or harassment.
  • Seek professional help as needed. Familiarize yourself with signs of depression and anxiety. The fallout from this kind of incident can be very long-term.

Guidelines for schools in dealing with sex-related bullying/ harassment. 

  • These students may be traumatized. They may need a plan to effectively deal with the emotional turmoil and practical fallout. Discuss with these students possible sources of strength such as family support, friends, community support, healthy activities, and counseling.
  • Help the target plan a “next steps” strategy to tap into these sources. 
  • Make sure the student also knows to report any continuing challenges.
  • Periodically check in with the student to find out how things are going. Also contact the student’s teachers to ask them to be attentive to any concerns. 
  • In any situation where a student has had a nude image distributed, It is essential to predict sexual harassment and have a plan of action to prevent and intervene. This will require ongoing, intensive support of the student depicted.
  • Respond to reports of harassment in a manner that is restorative and that also sends a clear message that such harassment will not be tolerated. 
  • Help this student enlist the help of supportive friends. Speak with the friends of this student to ask them to report to the school if problems continue or the student is showing signs of continuing distress.

More information for school personnel on dealing with this issues can be found in another resource guide, also developed by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. School and Family Approaches to Intervention and Prevention: Addressing Self/ Peer Exploitation can be ordered by clicking here.

We need to do this better. For Rheteah. For Amanda. For Audrie. For all the other girls and boys who have been victimized in this way.

Kids, kindness and cruelty online

Have you heard the story about the girl who Skyped with a close friend while she went to the bathroom, only to find the video posted online? Or the teen who (somewhat inexplicably) updated her status to say she’d gotten her period for the first time, and though she quickly regretted it and took it down, realized news had circulated like wildfire? Or the boy who texted some friends about an impromptu party at his house when his parents went out of town, and had hundreds of kids he didn’t know turn up and trash the house?

Stories like these have become Internet lore, the kind of urban legends (true or not) that illustrate our concerns about how new media technologies can magnify the fallout of typical teenage naiveté.

But is our re-telling of these stories gossip? Cautionary tales for our kids and other parents? Or do they function like modern-day ghost stories, keeping the bogeyman at bay through ritual repetition? It’s important to know whether these stories are simply reflections of our own anxieties at something new, or if they reflect a new reality for teens that is actually more dangerous because of the Internet?

A new report prepared by the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that being a teenager in an age of social media might not actually be dramatically different from what it used to be back in the dark ages before Facebook (which only opened to the public outside of colleges in 2006).

The report, entitled “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American teens navigate the new world of ‘digital citizenship,'” is based on interviews with 799 American teens from all backgrounds. The findings show that although negative interactions and occurrences are not uncommon online, that majority of teens report generally positive interactions. It does seem to suggest what experts have been saying for some time: parents have to be actively involved in what their kids are doing on the Internet.

Some key findings:

  • 69% of teens say that kids their age are mostly kind to one another on social media sites (compared to 85% of adults asked the same question)
  • 20% of teens say that kids their age are mostly unkind to each other on social media, while 11% said “it depends” (compared to 5% of adults who believe their peers are unkind).
  • 88% of teens report having seen people being cruel to one another (compared to 69% of adults). 12% said they saw cruel behavior “frequently,” 29% say they saw cruelty towards others “sometimes,” and 47% say they saw that behavior only “once in a while.”
  • 15% of teens say they themselves have been the target of harassment online in the past 12 months; 13% of adults also said this was the case.
  • Many more teens reported positive outcomes from using social media (78%) than negative ones (41%).
  • 65% of teens have had an experience on a social media network that made them feel good about themselves; 58% have had an experience online that made them feel closer to another person.
  • 25% of teens have had a face-to-face argument or confrontation with another person
  • 22% have had an experience online that ended a friendship
  • 13% had an experience online that caused problems with their parents
  • 13% of teens had an experience online that made them feel nervous about school the next day
  • 8% got into a physical fight with someone because of something that happened online; 6% got into trouble at school.

When it comes to bullying, it seems that the resources of technology are yet one more tool in a varied arsenal designed to torment others.

  • 19% of teens say they were bullied in some way over the past 12 months, usually in multiple ways
  • 12% report being bullied in person
  • 9% report being bullied by text messages
  • 8% experienced some form of online bullying, whether by email, through a social media site or instant messaging.
  • Girls are much more likely than boys to have been bullied in various ways, except for in-person bullying, which happened to both sexes equally.
  • 95% of kids who have witnessed cruel behavior online have witnessed others ignoring it, but 84% have also seen others defend the person being harassed or ask for the behavior to stop.
  • 67% of teens who’ve seen people harassed online have witnessed others joining in the harassment; 21% have admitted they themselves joined in.
  • 53% of those who sought out help and advice regarding cruelty online went to a friend; 36% went to a parent

What role do parents play in their kids’ use of the Internet?

  • 86% of those online say they have received general advice about responsible use of the Internet from their parents
  • 58% of teens say their parents are their biggest influence on what they think is appropriate behavior on the Internet or using a cellphone; 18% say their friends are their biggest influence; 18% say “no one” is an influence
  • Younger girls aged 12-13 say they are much more likely to rely on the advice of a friend than a parent regarding the Internet
  • 39% of all parents have “friended” their kids on social media sites; of parents who were already online, 45% report “friending” their kids

When it comes to thinking about the potential ramifications of what they post before hitting the Send button, not all teens are thinking ahead:

  • 55% of teens say they have decided against posting something because they say it might reflect badly on them in the future
  • Older teens (14-17) were more likely to think this than younger teens (12-13) – 59% vs 46%
  • 67% of 17-year-olds say they think about the consequences before posting things online.

To read more of their findings and for full discussion of their methodology and results, click here. To hear a really interesting interview on CBC Radio’s Spark with  Amanda Lenhart, Pew Internet’s lead researcher on this project, click here.

Privacy 2.0: what your kids should never ever post online

No matter where they were from, it’s a pretty good bet our grandparents were very careful about what personal details they revealed to anyone. What happened within household walls (not to mention bedroom walls) was sacred, not for anyone else’s ears.

And while our parents may have been slightly less strict about this, the general rule was probably the same: personal information was kept private. Intimate details about our families, our bodies, our relationships, our homes and finances were not for sharing. Television, unauthorized biographies and gossip magazines were starting to change our perception of what should be private, but most people still showed care over what could be aired in public.

In the world in which we are raising our kids, it seems as if everything has changed. The rise of Web 2.0, where everyone has a blog, Facebook account and YouTube channel, means we have come to mine the minutiae of our lives for the interest of others. Everything that happens to us is potential Content, anecdotes that might interest our potential public. As one of my university students observed in class last year, we are always performing to an invisible camera.

It’s a lot of pressure to come up with that much content, particularly when you need to continuously groom and fine tune your digital persona. Suddenly, the argument you had with your friend on the way to school or the strange behavior of that kid in History class can seem like entertaining material. It’s hard to blame our kids for thinking that everything that happens to them is potential fodder for self-publicity when they are surrounded by examples of this all over the Internet, in magazines and on TV.

But if the very notion of privacy has changed, we as parents have to be particularly vigilant in helping our kids maintain some boundaries (and observing them ourselves).

Some material should never be online because it poses potential threats to our safety. That includes identifying information such as your address, home telephone number, daily whereabouts (using Foursquare or Facebook Places). Some of this information may be encoded in the pictures you post from your Smartphone, so educate yourself here about metadata. Aside from the concern of online predators and stalkers, personal information made public makes us vulnerable to personal identity theft, an experience that can take years of frustration to remedy and damage your reputation and credit rating.

Other material should never be put online because it can prove embarrassing and potentially hurtful to you later on. Pictures that show people drunk, unconscious, high, engaged in illegal or immoral activities or doing stuff that most people would find stupid (car surfing, vandalism, etc.) will only haunt you later on when it comes time to apply to college, find a job, start a business, find a spouse or run for public office.

Parents should remember this when posting pictures of their kids on the potty or doing cute but embarrassing little kid stuff. Those toddlers are going to grow up and resent having those pictures committed to the Internet.

Finally, your kids should never, ever post anything online that could be embarrassing or potentially hurtful to others. We take the power of the Internet for granted but it is an awesome responsibility. Teens don’t always realize that irony does not translate well in text; you can’t mitigate the words with the tone of voice that might have made it clear you were “just joking” when you called someone a particular name, referred to their appearance, sexuality, weight, accomplishments, etc. Cyberbullying is a serious issue, and even “good” kids can make poor judgment calls when it comes to posting potentially hurtful material about others.

Contrary to the schoolyard chant, words can really hurt. This past week’s suicide of a high school boy in Ottawa is just one more tragic name added to a list of kids tormented by bullying online and off.

Because privacy is not only about maintaining our own dignity; it is also about respecting the dignity of others.

Kids can overlook this, through lack of sophistication, experience and tech savvy. It is our duty as parents and educators to make sure they never forget it. That means:

  • frequently talking about these issues and responsibilities;
  • making regular reviews of their email and Facebook pages a condition of access to these tools, until they have proven consistent responsible behavior;
  • establishing a clear, consistent and appropriate set of consequences for breaches, such as temporarily “grounding” their access to these accounts.