Texting, social sites, email, and IM -- this is how kids socialize. They tune in to find out who's dating who or what the math homework is. But kids can also use these tools to threaten, harass, or gang up on other kids.
As the drama plays out among a circle of friends, everyone becomes involved. Kids take turns playing different roles, as the aggressor, the victim, the bystander -- or they may stand up and try to stop it.
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With age-appropriate guidelines, you can encourage the kind of responsible, respectful, safe behavior that allows your kid to reap the benefits of new technology while curbing the spread of online cruelty.
It's very unlikely that they would encounter cyberbullying at this age, but the more screen time they get, the more potential there is for exposure to negative comments and misbehavior on social sites.
Once kids begin to read and write, the entire online experience changes. Because they can communicate with others, kids really have to understand the basics of kind, responsible, and safe online behavior.
If your 7- and 8-year-olds play on sites where they can interact with others, they may get a taste of online mischief. Kids sometimes make a game of getting around a site's chat filter by typing in words with symbols like "a$$." Sometimes kids misuse the "flag" or "block" function (which is designed to call out misbehavior) by flagging other kids indiscriminately. Nearly all websites have consequences -- including banning the user -- for this kind of behavior.
Kids also begin to strongly identify with their same-sex peer group now -- which can lead to a boys-against-the-girls (or girls-against-the-boys) dynamic that can carry over into virtual worlds.
When they're not with their friends, they may be meeting them online at a gaming or social site. Many sites targeted to preteens offer interactivity, such as multiplayer games and chatting. Kids this age might be uploading pictures or other creations to fan sites (like iCarly.com and LEGO.com).
Texting and taking photos are popular activities for kids 9-11 who have cell phones. At the older end of this range, kids are taking notice of social networking sites. These activities can broaden the potential for online or mobile abuse and humiliation of others.
For a few more years, kids' abilities with technology far outstrip their judgment. Social pressures increase, but preteens know the difference between right and wrong.
It's likely that they'll encounter cyberbullying from experiencing it first hand, hearing about it, witnessing it, or possibly even perpetrating it. Sites like Formspring that allow teens to post anonymous comments can become popular among cliques and lead to lots of trash-talking.
When they turn 13, kids are no longer subject to COPPA -- which means they'll be able to go on sites without your knowledge or permission (Facebook is the big one).
Discuss the consequences for social or discriminatory behavior (and enforce them whenever necessary). Ask how they'd feel if the shoe was on the other foot.
Nearly every teen has a phone and may be texting into the wee hours. With little impulse control (and little sleep), these conversations can take a turn for the worse.
Teens can be very secretive -- often there's nothing specific that they're hiding, but they have a desire to make mistakes or triumphs on their own, away from parental eyeballs. Teens sometimes act out online in an attempt to prove their popularity.
Talk about how things can easily be misunderstood easily -- jokes can be taken the wrong way, and drama can escalate. Discuss ways to nip tension in the bud.
Tact is key. Swooping in to fix the problem could hurt your kid's social standing or even jeopardize their safety. Promise your kid privacy and discretion.
Find out what your school's cyberbullying policy is. Some schools might help the families involved work things out. But some won't touch it with a 10-foot pole. Consider hosting a "Stand Up" workshop to help spread awareness in your community and school.
Reach out to the other parents and make sure not to blame them. Establish a neutral place (perhaps with a neutral mediator) to discuss the situation. Say, "I'm worried about my kid," not "your kid is harassing my kid."
Understand that cyberbullying is often a group activity, with kids playing various roles (victim, bully, bystander) at different times. While your kid may have been targeted, he or she may have not been a perfect angel, either.
Ask other parents to get involved. Cyberbullying is a local issue, and taking our pledge can help you make a difference in your community.
Save the evidence. You may need to show proof of the activity to convince the other parent.