Bullying has moved from the playground to the smartphone. The digital world is always-on and everywhere, meaning social media platforms and messaging apps can amplify bullying attacks exponentially. The perceived anonymity of the internet mutes inhibition and fear of being called out or punished, often leading to an increase in “cyberbullying” behavior. And for targeted individuals: cyberbullying consequences can be devastating.
Anxiety and depression, followed closely by bullying, were identified by children as the top major problems among their peers in a recent Pew Research Center survey of US teens aged 13 to 17. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is now the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States — and suicide rates for children aged 10–14 nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017.
San Diego State research psychologist Dr. Jean M. Twenge told the New York Times the rise in suicide by young people “correlates directly with their access to smartphones,” further noting 85% of teens now engage with social media. “Kids are spending as much as eight hours a day on social media, where there’s a lot of negativity, competition, and jockeying for status and unfiltered access to sites that tell them how to harm themselves.”
So, what could we be doing better to combat the issue? Here are three ways to help your kids navigate the pressures of their digital lives.
Stephen Balkam, the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) says on the organization’s website, “The tech industry is a key part of building this culture of responsibility. We must continue to demand real, comprehensive industry self-regulatory efforts — tools to filter, to report, to keep posts private, and to encourage positive behaviors.”
Where companies don’t address the issues, government regulatory bodies can. Parents can lead that charge by staying informed and communicating with their elected representatives.
There has been some positive movement in this direction. According to the MIT Technology Review, “Instagram has started asking new users for their birthdate so it can provide new safety measures for younger users. The company has been gradually introducing tools to crack down on bullying, self-harm, and suicide imagery on the app.”
Curating a child’s initial online experiences online to establish behavioral responsibilities and provide context is a key step for parents. Federal Trade Commission guidelines recommend teaching kids their digital behavior has real-world permanent consequences: “they can’t hide behind the words they type and the images they post or send.”
Set limits and expectations, along with revisiting permissions on app usage, screen time, and internet access frequently. This isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process. Technology continues to evolve at lightning speed.
Dr. Richard Freed, a child and adolescent psychologist and author, says that reconsidering and resetting rules on digital permissions can be an ongoing conversation and it’s okay to adjust the rules.
“Say that as a parent you’ve found new information or come to the realization that the decision you made wasn’t a good one, and you need to make a change.”
New health information about technology’s impact on adolescents comes out almost daily. Recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that, on average, as teenagers’ use of social media increased in a given year, so, too, did their reported symptoms of depression.
Equip your kids
Perhaps the most powerful thing parents can do is equip your kids to function online by educating them about the principles of digital citizenship and empowering them to make wise choices.
Gradually increase freedoms as they master responsibilities. Supply them with tools to guide them safely as they develop their online identities. Talk to them — and listen. Make sure you understand how they use technology and how they feel about it.
The Family Online Safety Institute’s Balkam puts it best: “Giving young people agency over their online lives is perhaps the greatest gift we can give them — helping them to develop resiliency and the strength to stand up to bullies, predators, and others who act out inappropriately online and off.”
Balkam continues, “If we get this right, we will encourage a generation of young people to make wise choices about the content they access and post, about who they contact and who they allow to contact them, and how they conduct themselves online.”
Important for parents to remember: The digital world is a new frontier and how our children are experiencing it matters.