A social media speaker recently went to my friend’s 10-year-old daughter’s school to talk about online stranger danger. He asked the students to raise their hands if they’re on Instagram. Not surprisingly, about one-quarter of them identified as Instagram users. He then told them that it was illegal for them to be on the popular platform and recommended that they delete their accounts immediately (citing the social site’s user guidelines, which state that you must be 13 years old to sign on).
I asked my young friend how she felt about this. She explained that she felt scared and angry because she loves posting filter-filled photos of her family and friends. Plus, as she described, “Insta” helps her stay in touch with people she cares about. In her mind, this man was clearly from another planet because he didn’t understand a thing about how her world works. She then told me she hated him.
Her strong words didn’t surprise me: Kids take their Internet lives and online communities very seriously. I recently read Jessi Cruickshank’s Flare article about how the #MendesArmy horrendously bullied her after she made a joke about the pop star at the Junos. Hers is a frightening—and, unfortunately, all-too-common—cautionary tale.
The web, as wonderful as it is, can be a dangerous place, but how parents manage these dangers is up for debate. “The longer you keep Pandora’s box shut, the better off you are,” says online safety expert Jesse Weinberger. “There’s no connection to the dark side without the device.” I routinely hear this advice, but I don’t agree. It’s simply not realistic for parents to lock away the tablets and smartphones and hope for the best.
According to research firm Influence Central, kids are getting their first smartphones around the age of 10—and this is guaranteed to trend younger in years to come. And, though most social media rules state that you must be at least 13 years old to sign up, many kids are starting to use Instagram, Snapchat and other sites while they’re still in grade school.
Setting boundaries in terms of an appropriate age to own a smartphone or sign up for digital communities is, of course, important, but we also need to educate kids about today’s digital world, including how to deal with flaming and cyberstalking. The rules of digital engagement must start at home. Parents and guardians who hand over devices to children need to do so with guidelines in place. We don’t give kids access to our cars without proper training; the same principles must apply to the Internet.
Fortunately, setting rules makes it clear what’s OK and what’s not. SafeKids has a set of free online safety contract templates for families (safekids.com/family-contract-for-online-safety). Invest an hour with your kids to complete it and post it in a public place in your home (that is, no more arguing about different definitions of the rules).
However, once those rules are set, you still need to be vigilant. When it comes to bullying behaviour, here are a few things to watch out for.
WHAT ONLINE BULLYING CAN LOOK LIKE Bullying can include everything from creating a fake social network account in the name of another person to posting slanderous statements about someone online. Here are the six most common bullying tactics.
1. FANDOM It may seem cute when young people flock together online to support their favourite entertainers. If your kid is a Belieber or a Swiftie, she likely feels like part of a loving community, but if your tween openly criticizes one of these artists, there could be a potential backlash from an army of people online, including hate-filled messages and death threats. If you know your child is a vocal fan on Instagram, make sure to explain that sometimes these digital armies can get out of hand (the herd mentality at its worst). You might want to use one of the apps listed below to monitor these fan-based conversations for signs of bullying.
2. FLAMING A person doing the flaming (the flamer) will purposefully write things to torment his or her victims. In most cases, the flamer is looking for a reaction, which is why it’s good advice for the person being flamed to simply ignore all comments.
3. EXCLUSION Many kids online simply want to be part of a community or group, which is why this form of bullying often hurts most. Exclusion is when a person or group of people decide to leave another individual out of a conversation or chat. In effect, they gang up on that particular person by rejecting them from the group’s online activities.
4. OUTING While some kids assume that chatting when using ephemeral messaging services like Snapchat (disappearing social media) is private without any permanent record, it’s quite common for a recipient to take a screenshot of a private note or image and share it with others. Many times, if a child sends a personal message that is sexual in nature (or just plain embarrassing), the recipient will share it with other people as a form of outing.
5. MASTERING This is a more elaborate form of bullying and, unfortunately, it’s quite common on social media. With mastering, a bully may go to great lengths to pretend to be someone else, including creating an email address using a peer’s name, launching a social media account using a peer’s photo or signing up for a messaging app with a peer’s info. While the bully pretends to be another child online, they will share messages and images that are embarrassing and hurtful.
6. CYBERSTALKING This is an extreme form of harassment with nonstop threatening messages and comments. In a lot of these cases, the individual who is cyberstalked is fearful that the bully will show up at his or her home or school. This is why kids need to be especially careful about protecting their personal information online, such as their location and their school. If this content gets into the hands of someone who is cyberstalking them, an already horrible situation can escalate into something worse.
APPS TO MONITOR BULLYING BEHAVIOUR If your kids are using social media, you need to monitor their activity. Some people will argue that this is stalking, but I would say that it is simply parenting—that way, when you identify an issue, you can have a conversation with your kids. Here are a couple of the popular apps that allow you to stay on top of what your tweens and teens are doing.
Visr.co (visr.co) What’s interesting about Visr is that it monitors exclusively for safety issues. It doesn’t encourage spying on kids’ everyday conversations, but it focuses on notifying parents if there are issues, such as bullying, explicit content, violence and drugs. Currently, Visr’s data scientists conduct this monitoring on Instagram, Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and KidsEmail. The average parent will receive about 20 important alerts a month. The app is currently free, but there is a paid version in the works. Check out the site’s privacy policies to understand what safeguards are in place in terms of how your information is collected and shared.
TeenSafe (teensafe.com) More than one million parents currently use this app worldwide. This cross-platform download lets moms and dads monitor their kids’ activity on Instagram, including posts, comments and followers. You will also be able to see SMS and iMessages, logs of sent and received calls, location history, current device location, web browsing details and contact information. There are features that are specifically available if your child is an iPhone or Android user. For example, if your daughter has an Android device, you can view a list of third-party apps. If your son has an iPhone, you can view his Kik messages, both sent and received. TeenSafe also has a helpful Parent’s Guide that explains why monitoring makes sense, including stats like these: Sixty-one percent of teens have sent nude pictures because they were pressured to do so, and more than half of all teens have been bullied online.
SOCIAL MEDIA ACRONYMS TO KNOW The acronyms that kids use to keep their parents in the dark are always in flux, but there are a few popular terms you should learn. There are also a few on this list that are innocent in nature but worth noting so you won’t get concerned when you see them on Instagram or other social sites.
IDEK: I don’t even know BAE: A term of endearment to describe someone GOAT: Greatest of all time GNOC: Get naked on camera ASL: Age, sex, location CD9 (Code9): Parents are around IWSN: I want sex now KPC: Keep parents clueless PAW: Parents are watching #PRON: The misspelled word here represents “porn” and is often tagged to offensive sexual content. #GNRN: This abbreviation stands for “get naked right now” and is frequently grouped with the tag GNOC (get naked on camera). #TINA: Innocent-looking enough and could refer to a friend in the photo or it could be a reference to the drug crystal meth. Consider the context of the photo before jumping to conclusions. #KYS: Kill Your Self. This is often used when a child is bullying another child and wants that person to shut up or stop talking, but it can also be taken in a more literal way.
Amber Mac is co-author of the book Outsmarting Your Kids Online: A Safety Handbook for Overwhelmed Parents.