Tag Archives: teens

The friends you’ll never meet: What parents need to know about kids and online communities

drawingA 12-year-old girl befriends a group of people in an online community dedicated to nurturing teen artists. Although she will never meet them face-to-face, speak to them on the telephone or engage with them in any other way, she quickly forms what she feels are meaningful friendships.

When she is away on a school trip, her mom picks up her daughter’s iPad, notices the site is open and begins reading through the messages. In between the many messages about various art projects, experiments with watercolours and collage and mostly constructive feedback on each other’s artistic creations, she sees messages with words that alarm her: cutting, drinking, fighting, drugs, suicide attempts. One of the boys claims he is 18 and is virtually “dating” a 14-year-old girl (who told him she was 16).

When her daughter comes home, mom brings it up. Her daughter blows off her concerns, saying it’s all just posing online. These are not her REAL friends, the ones she sees every day. They are just teen artists using funky avatars (images chosen to represent their persona) playing around online.

Mom is mollified but concerned. They talk about the references to drinking, drugs, mentions of suicide attempts. Cutting. She has her daughter’s password to this site and they agree to keep talking.

A week later, daughter comes to her mom in tears. Someone on this young person’s art network just posted a notice saying one of their online friends has died. She is distraught. Mom is freaked out. She doesn’t know what to do – does she ban her daughter from this social network and risk her defiance? How can she intervene in something that seems to be completely out of her control?

So she emails me for advice.

The Internet, for all its wonders of information, access, creativity and connection, also exposes our kids to communities of influence they might not otherwise know. We can move to a good neighbourhood, put them in good schools, get to know the parents of their friends and their soccer coaches. We can try to stack the deck in their favour with good influences and positive role models.

And while the Internet can offer many wonderful things, it is also an open door to stuff that kids will find difficult to handle. Hard core pornography. Violence. Information about sniffing, huffing, car surfing or the “monkey game.” But aside from all of these things, it also offers connections to new people whose real identities can be easily disguised. Most of them really are 14-year old girls interested in art or 16-year old boys with a genuine interest in online role-playing games, as they claim to be. But some of them are pretending to be what they are not, whether for kicks (just because they can) or for more insidious reasons.

When I speak about the deceptive ease with which someone can “pass” as someone else, most people laugh it off. Everyone seems to think they would somehow know if someone is lying. Others may be taken in, but they are too smart. Too savvy.

And you know what? They aren’t. Adults as well as kids tend to take what people say about themselves at face value. It’s super easy to be fooled, especially when our friends believe it too.

What does this have to do with my story? When I spoke with the concerned mom about the details of this supposed online death, a lot of inconsistencies and strange facts threw up red flags. The dead boy had claimed to be working with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a drug bust (yeah, right). He had proposed marriage to another 16-year-old girl on this network even though they had never met. The stories of fights and wild parties all had an unreal edge. He regularly let others post notices from his account. He had been banned by the site administrators before, and had registered for a new account.

So while the circle of teen artists invested in this community posted their grief in dark charcoal drawings and angst-ridden poetry, we discussed the very likely possibility that this was all a sham. She was relieved, and her daughter — though she didn’t want to believe it at first — gradually (and grudgingly) admitted the stories may have been exaggerated or made up.

Upset about the whole ordeal, Mom said she wanted to ban her daughter from this site. And although my first instinct as a parent would be to do the exact same thing, I urged her to reconsider.

Here’s why: A 12-year-old banned from a website she finds extremely compelling will be very tempted to sneak on when her mom isn’t watching. On a friend’s computer. At school. It’s extremely difficult to enforce that kind of ban, and extremely tempting to a kid to defy it. If they do, then a parent has to react decisively. You are setting yourself up for a battle that will be hard — or even impossible — to win.

But in this case, the daughter hadn’t done anything wrong. She didn’t need punishing — she needed guidance. The biggest takeaway from this episode is that fact that she came to talk to her mother when she saw something upsetting. Isn’t that ultimately what we all want with our kids? If mom banned the website, her daughter would no longer be able to discuss it with her.

So mom allowed her daughter to keep her account, but with some new conditions: that they go on together to review her messages and postings. She praised her daughter for keeping a cool head and coming to talk to her. She told her that she was giving her the freedom to stay on this site (with guidance) precisely because she showed good judgment in speaking to her mother.

So far, it seems this very upsetting situation evolved into an opportunity to learn some more about managing relationships – both online and off. Some important guidelines about kids and online communities:

  • Parents of kids and young teens need to give their usernames and passwords to parents
  • Kids and young teens have no right to privacy from their parents when online. These accounts are not the same as private diaries.  There is too much need for guidance around potential pitfalls. They can earn this privacy over time by showing consistent good judgment.
  • Kids and young teens don’t think they can be fooled by people pretending to someone else. This needs to be discussed regularly. Point out examples whenever possible.
  • Look into the online communities your kids want to join. Are there moderators? A contact for support if someone acts inappropriately. A way to flag inappropriate posts?
  • Go online with your kids every once in a while to see what kinds of things are being posted. Discuss what you see.
  • Steer kids to some of the excellent online communities for their age and interests. Spend a bit of time on Google checking them out – there are many wonderful, creative and reasonably safe online spaces for kids to interact.

What can we learn from Amanda Todd’s tragic bullying-related suicide?

Amanda Todd's call for helpI’m not sure what is harder to take – the heart-wrenching video 15-year-old Amanda Todd posted about her years of bullying, or the many hateful comments that have been posted online since her suicide.

It’s enough to make you want to give up on kids today. To lock away your own children’s laptops, iPads and smartphones. To feel despair about human nature.

But we can’t do that. We can’t stick our heads in the sand. We do all kids a disservice by letting a few bad seeds taint a whole generation. And we can’t properly prepare our kids for a wired world by (ineffectively) banning their access to the Internet. To truly help our children, and to honour Amanda Todd’s memory in the wake of this tragedy, we need to stay focused on some very important points. As a parenting and risk-prevention expert, I’d like to offer some related thoughts to parents, educators and caring people haunted by this (and other) bullying-related deaths.

Most kids don’t bully; most kids aren’t bullied. When tragic bullying-related suicides occur, the media coverage can fan the flames of moral panic. (Click here to tweet this). We clearly need to take this issue very, very seriously, but we also need to remain level-headed.  Hysterical, fear-motivated responses include passing thoughtless and ineffective “zero-tolerance” anti-bullying policies at schools or banning the use of social media at school instead of teaching good digital citizenship.

A 2011 Pew Internet study found that 69% of teens report their peers are mostly kind to one another online. It is true that 15% report being harassed or bullied themselves online, but we need to remember that ” 7 in 10 kids are mostly experiencing kindness, not rudeness and certainly not bullying or harassment” (from bullying expert Larry Magid’s Huffington Post piece).

This does not in any way mean we don’t need to treat true bullying with the utmost care, support and seriousness. Just that we can’t let these tragedies come to define all childhood or teen interaction.

Not all rudeness or cruelty is bullying. This isn’t just about semantics. When governments and schools are grappling with anti-bullying policies and protocols, we need to understand the difference because it can have serious implications for how it is handled. Bullying is generally distinguished from other kinds of aggression (verbal or non-verbal, direct or indirect) by several elements, including intentionally hurtful actions, its repetitive or on-going nature, the general lack of remorse by the bully(or bullies), blaming of the victim (“why can’t she take a joke?” “she’s a slut so she deserved it,” “he takes everything so seriously,” etc.) and an underlying struggle for social power.

A kid who hits another in a schoolyard confrontation may not be a bully. A one-off mean comment on a Facebook page may not be bullying. Those are hurtful, anti-social behaviours that need to be dealt with, of course, but they are not necessarily bullying.

Kids who are bullied may not advocate for themselves or tell anyone. Amanda Todd’s story is terribly insightful. She didn’t report on the bullies. She ran away and hid in a ditch so teachers coming to her aid wouldn’t find her. She didn’t press charges for her assault. I don’t blame her for any of this — who would want to label oneself a victim? The implied powerlessness and humiliation of accepting one’s victimhood can be more additional trauma than many bullied kids are willing to accept.

We need to understand this in order to identify and better help those kids (especially older children and teens) who understand the social implications of being labelled a bullying victim. Many don’t want to disappoint their parents. And the horrible truth is that sometimes adults who get involve unwittingly make things worse for their kids by seeking immediate consequences or public retribution for the aggressors.

So what do they need? First of all, they need validation from trusted adults. Simple, non-judgemental and compassionate acceptance of the stories they have to tell. Look at all the kids and teens who had to go online with their note cards to tell their stories because they felt unable to voice it in person to the adults who loved them. Then they need emotional and practical support. Having mom or dad angrily march into the principal’s office seeking revenge on the bullies is likely not at the top of their list.

We must make the teaching of good digital citizenship a priority in our schools. Technology is not the enemy. It offers amazing, creative and productive possibilities to our children, and using it well will be necessary in their lives.

But it also offers up many pitfalls. Amanda Todd talks about a critical error she made in flashing her breasts on a webcam when she was 12 years old, and how this image was used to blackmail and torment her for years. Schools and parents must teach their children about the hyper-public and infinitely replicable nature of the Internet. Webcams, Skyping and Facetiming should be allowed only in common rooms. We need to review our teen’s Facebook accounts with them (not just friend them and hope for the best).

Bullying is almost never the sole reason for suicide. It may be a catalyst or the last straw, but on its own it won’t put most kids at risk for killing themselves. Almost all bullying-related suicides have other serious elements in play — depression, addiction, mental health issues, etc. Again, bullying may play a key precipitating role. And this is not in any way about blaming the victim. These kids and teens need caring, capable support and counselling. They deserve to live free of cruelty and harassment. They need trusted adults to help them figure out what they can’t manage on their own.

Why is it important to understand that bullying alone doesn’t cause suicides? Because, as much as we need to support all kids who need help, we also need to remain level-headed. Panicked parents of kids who have been targeted by bullies may not be their kids’ best advocates when they see only the worst-case scenarios.

My heart goes out to Amanda Todd’s family and friends. She didn’t deserve the years of pain she endured. Her mother has called for her daughter’s death to be a wake-up call for more effective, proactive legislation in British Columbia. Let us all honour her memory with more effective education, awareness and understanding about the nature of bullying.

 

Guest Post: Breathalyzer tests used for teens in an effort to curb drunk driving

Risk Within Reason is pleased to feature this guest post by attorney and journalist Pari Chang.

Did you know that underage drinkers are responsible for between 10% and 20% of all alcohol consumed during the Christmas and New Year holiday period? Also, 21- to 24-year-olds repeatedly make up the highest percentage of impaired drivers.

Statistics like these have prompted initiatives by parents and school officials to administer Breathalyzer tests to young people. “Remember the debate over whether school nurses should distribute condoms? Now it’s: We know they drink, but what message does it send if schools give Breathalyzer tests?” says Mark Defino, a parent in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. School officials there have been testing kids for alcohol before school dances and proms since 2007.

Attorney Daniel R. Rosen, whose firm handles auto accident cases, adds, “Besides the moral implications, it’s a matter of balancing the privacy rights of students against controlling drinking and driving.”

The debate over Breathalyzer-testing our youth rages across the country. In the Pequannock school district in New Jersey, it began in 2006 and hasn’t stopped. That year, at a Pequannock school dance, 40% to 50% of the kids arrived under the influence of alcohol. A survey of 400 juniors and seniors taken during that school year revealed that 219 students had used alcohol in the previous 30 days.

Pequannock school officials decided to rely on Breathalyzers to keep the students honest. The district implemented a program that warned students; they could be tested for alcohol up to 80 
hours after they have consumed it. If a student had a drink on Friday, it would be evident on a test on Monday. Since that program began, the number of juniors and seniors consuming alcohol has decreased by 37%.

I commend the district for having the courage to take action instead of waiting for a tragedy,” says Lacy Link, an educator in Northern New Jersey whose district is considering a similar program. She notes that many parents support the program. “Some have purchased breath alcohol ignition interlock devices of their own,” she says. Breath alcohol ignition interlock devices (BAIID) are designed to prevent an individual from operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. The result is peace of mind for parents by reducing the likelihood that their teenagers will be arrested for drunk driving or be involved in a near-fatal or fatal drunk-driving accident.

But Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) presses a less controversial approach.  MADD advocates teaching kids to say no when peers urge them to engage in underage drinking. They encourage parents to inform their teenagers, and the statistics support their approach: Teen alcohol use kills about 6,000 people each year, more than all illegal drugs combined.

One in three eighth-grade students has tried alcohol. One in five teens binge drinks, but only one in 100 parents believes their child binge drinks. Seventy-four percent of kids (ages 8-17) said their parents are the leading influence on their decisions about drinking.  Having regular family conversations about alcohol can reduce underage drinking and drunkenness by 30-60%. When parents and kids are better connected, kids are less likely to drink or use other drugs.

To help parents tackle this tough issue, MADD provides a parent handbook on its website and arranges community workshops. Around the holidays, it’s particularly difficult to curb teen drinking and driving, not only because kids let loose after exams, but because of capitalism, straight up.

Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Columbia University Medical Center and author of the book One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, notes that the alcohol industry has opposed many anti-drunk driving measures by enthusiastically promoting the phrase “responsible drinking” in public campaigns while opposing legislation aimed at deterring drinking and driving. Plus, beer companies, in particular, continue to advertise heavily and promote events on college campuses.

Teenage drinking and driving statistics are alarming, but parents are not without resources. The best resource is sharing yourself, and speaking from the heart, without judgment. No Breathalyzer test is a substitute for an open and honest conversation with a young person about taking responsibility for their actions. When young people feel they are heard and affirmed, constructive change can happen.

Pari Chang is an attorney and professional journalist with writing credits that include The New York Times, SELF, and Glamour.