In my years consulting with schools and investigating social media, cybercrime and cyberbullying issues, I’ve become all too familiar with the endless number of virtual landmines that our kids encounter every day on their cell phones and computers.
Thankfully, the challenge can be managed. But it requires a healthy dose of attention and accountability by the adult role models in our kids’ lives, both in the classroom and at home.
The online risks our kids face today begin in the earliest school years and evolve with each passing grade.
As we enter the holiday gift-giving season, many parents and guardians are likely considering the pros and cons of giving the children in their care and more access to the cybersphere. Below, I share a few important considerations about youth social-emotional development relative to internet use and social media, and some proven tips for effectively communicating both the risks of engaging online and ways we can work with our kids to keep them safer in the digital neighborhood.
The Early Years (K-5)
Kids are learning to use computers and now being exposed to digital content in the classroom as early as kindergarten. A digital shadow begins taking shape the very first time they sign into an account and begin to explore the Internet. Children in this age group should be introduced to the basic concepts of digital citizenship, Internet Safety, and what to do should they be contacted by a stranger or exposed to something that makes them uncomfortable.
Most of the worst mistakes related to social networking are made in grades 6, 7, and 8. During this time of adolescence, young people are having fun and embracing the gift of technology, but all to frequently don’t make the best decisions in real life. These decisions often follow them into the online world. The mission at this level should be to educate kids on the issues around the permanence of information — things they share online don’t necessarily disappear when you click the delete button — and to encourage them to be the same person online as they are in the real world. Another key is teaching them about empathy and their ability to make a positive change in others’ lives by reporting cyberbullying and bullying in general.
As students get ready to pursue jobs, apply to colleges, or join the military, it is an important time for parents and educators to continue pressing the importance of responsible social networking. An emphasis should be placed on making teens aware that careless social media behavior can carry serious consequences — one picture, video or comment can hurt their reputations and haunt them for years to come. Continue to talk to them about being the change their peers need and to be respectful of others online.
Tips for Teachers and Counselors
Regardless of the age, there are steps schools can take right now to ensure their students’ safety and happiness. For starters, counselors and teachers should talk about the issues in a forthright way and provide them the tools that truly empower them to “say something if they see something” — especially when it comes to their mental health. Schools should also dedicate as many resources as they can toward effectively training school personnel to identify signs of trouble among their students. In addition, counselors and educators can:
- Teach students self-regulation, resilience and etiquette in their online communications.
- Create lesson plans on social media usage, character education and diversity. Start early.
- Make students aware that what they’re seeing is tailored, and often manipulated, by the person posting it – especially with celebrity feeds — so you only see what they want you to.
- Realize social media is the platform, not the problem; the problem is in how we use it. Rather than focusing on the very latest app, recognize that, regardless of the medium, young people are facing challenges we know about and are well versed in: social pressures, making good choices, and creating healthy boundaries.
Tips for Parents
As early as pre-K, parents should encourage their children to report problems they see online and in real life while strengthening their relationships with school officials. Kids struggle with the thought of “ratting” someone out and don’t want to get caught up in others’ problems by stepping forward to report them. They need to feel assured that they can share information without repercussions and that the person who is taking those reports is listening and cares.
Parents can and should:
- Develop a plan around social media regulation – i.e., setting time limits, putting it down at dinner table, turn-off time before bed.
- Work with kids on developing a healthy, balanced view of what social media is and what can happen relatable to the real world.
- Share your own stories of times when social media made you feel left out and how you coped with it. Also, talk about other kids who may feel hurt for not being included and teach your kids to understand their feelings.
- Model the social media usage and behavior that you expect of your kids.
And a final tip for both parents and educators: Let kids know there’s no better day than today to clean up their social media accounts and commit to making better decisions about what they post from now on.
Melissa Straub is the founder of High Impact Youth Training Solutions, LLC, a specialized consulting company that provides educational training and guidance on issues directly affecting our youth, schools, and communities. She is also the founder and lead investigator for Without A Trace Investigations, LLC, which specializes in social media-related investigations, including cybercrime, cyberbullying, sexting, and other social networking issues.
To speak with an expert on anonymous reporting solutions to help youth report instances of cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and other abusive and potentially harmful behaviors online or IRL (In Real Life), call STOPit Solutions today.