April 12, 2013
I am not an educator, a lawyer, a social media expert, or a psychologist (not a paid one anyway). I am a mom. A mom who wasn't going to share our family's very personal experience from this past weekend because I didn't want to bring more attention to a hurtful situation. I didn't want to potentially cause more stress to my beautiful child by having our friends who read this page ask questions. And I am desperately afraid of people calling our school which has followed policy and shown nothing but love for our daughter. If you are one of our friends, and you have a conversation with your kids, please do not name names or go into specifics of what you're about to read... our daughter's biggest fear is that everyone at school knows and the last thing we want for her is more chatter. I kindly ask for that to be honored. She is in as good a place as can be expected, better even, and why would I want to mess with that? Because you moms know that the moment you hold your first precious baby in your arms, you become every child's mom... so here goes, and it is long.
Last weekend, our family came face to face with one of the ugliest things out there. Cyber bullying. It was horrifying, heart-breaking, seemingly orchestrated, and felt like pure evil. And she is way too young. Too young to have read what she read, and felt what she felt. She is ten, soon to be eleven. Let that sink in for a minute. TEN. You may be thinking "why is your 10 year old even on social media?" And you may be right. Or your kids may be very young, and you are (in the words of my friend) "hoping it all magically disappears in the next few years".
Or your kids are on their i-things right now and you don't have a clue what they're doing. I am writing to you.
Outside of the big sites we're all fairly familiar with, there is SnapChat (instant messages that disappear once read), Instagram (photo sharing), Kik (texting w/out needing an actual phone #), Keek (video sharing), and many more, along with some that are most definitely being created as we speak. Do you know what they all are? I don't. That de-activated smart phone you gave your 2nd grader to play games on probably still has wifi capabilities, so please get to know them, and start having conversations about the cans and cannots right now. Internet sharing sites and texting is how tween and teen kids socialize and communicate outside of school. Right or wrong, it just is. Their digital literacy is astounding. Most of it is fun, I mean who doesn't love a funny Facebook post or a shout out from a friend? But the ability to hide behind a screen and say nasty and harmful things with total anonymity is anything but. And sadly it seems that our silver lining (if there is one) is that it happened to my daughter before she hits the stresses of middle school where it is apparently rampant, so she's learning how to deal with it early. That makes me sick.
The National Crime Prevention Council defines cyber-bullying as "the process of using the Internet, cell phones or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person." USlegal.com adds, "Cyber-bullying could be limited to posting rumors or gossips about a person in the internet bringing about hatred in other’s minds; or it may go to the extent of personally identifying victims and publishing materials severely defaming and humiliating them."
In our case, someone had copied multiple pictures of my daughter, some by herself and some with our other children, and labeled it as a hate account about her on Instagram. The most vile things were written under each picture... I'm talking the police officer I met with literally dropped his jaw. It spewed hate and hurt, included explicit adult themes, and about every curse word you could imagine, and then some.
But here's the thing. As disgusting and emotionally damaging as cyber-bullying is, the police do not investigate unless there is a direct threat, such as "I know where you live and I'm coming to xyz you". Understood. They were wonderful and a report was filed in case things escalated. Here's the other thing. Unless it happens on site, even if the offender is potentially another student, typical school policy is to become involved should it cause a disruption at school. In my head, I understand. The rest of me feels no peace. We love our schools, I mean really really love our schools. Love our teachers and tell everyone we know so. They absolutely made our daughter feel cared for and valued and we are grateful for that. After all of my obsessive googling, I have come to find that this is pretty much standard school policy everywhere... if it becomes an issue at school they get involved. I'm sure it comes down to legalities, and quite frankly, with all that our educators have on their plates.... I'm surprised they ever even get to the teaching part, I can't imagine them having to play Sipowicz too. It's not their fault, so partner with them and communicate what you can anyway. That being said, my head understands, raging mama bear heart... not so much.
What I can't shake is that my husband and I calmly and foolishly promised our daughter that whoever did this to her would be in a heap of trouble. We're not a vengeful folk, it's just that some form of discipline was, in our minds, the expected outcome in a no tolerance situation. What happened to her is wrong and we are in a position to prevent this from happening to someone else. At home and at school we tout no tolerance. Black and white. Except it's not. Reality is (in this case it seems) that there are no repercussions for the offender. Because in an anonymous harassment, only the victim is dealt with, not the bully. Nobody even asked who we think it might be. For us or anyone else to personally question someone without absolute proof is probably it's own form of harassment. Just my guess. It's usually good kids doing bad things without realizing the long-term implications is what we're told. Sounds pretty tolerant to me.
I'm living in the land of "what ifs" right now, and I can't quite wrap my head around the idea that the offender is possibly another student whose parents just don't know. They just don't know! And because it's not within anyone's authority in particular to delve further, they might not ever know or have the chance to correct the behavior. Part of me says the bully is in need of love and a lesson in empathy and deserves the chance to have someone help him/her work through their feelings in a healthy way, and I'm guessing I don't need to explain to you what the other part of me feels. Hell hath no fury is the saying. We'll just keep calling it "frustrated".
Here's one more thought that's going to sting. It stings me as well... a lot. It's kind of our fault. We allowed the whole thing to happen simply by giving the "ok" to the mobile technology in the first place, at an age when they are not mature enough to handle it's complexities. Ouch. How can we expect our schools to monitor and do damage control on something that we allowed our children to be part of? We are the only ones who have total control, and in our house, reversing permissions is not going to be pretty. I don't have a guess of what that magic age of responsibility is, but for now I encourage you all to ask your school to hold a parent education workshop, a student workshop, or anything you can to raise awareness.
I should say that we are lucky. We are lucky that our daughter, the victim of this horrible thing, is bright, confident, talented, and very well liked...and not in a mom gushing my-kid-is-great kind of way, she truly is a nice kid. At the ripe old age of ten, she has an enormous support system of very good friends, the support of family, the support of her friend's families, and the support of her school. She was in a friend's nurturing, loving, home when this came to surface. But what if she wasn't all those things?
While our family is far from perfect, I do love to chalk things up to karma... you reap what you sow, you get back what you put out into the world, etc, etc. And I am blessed to have the opportunity to teach forgiveness, probably one of the ultimate human gifts. But I hang my head low at the thought of a future conversation I might have with the mom of the next victim, perhaps a victim who would not have told a trusted adult what is happening and ends up withdrawn, scared, walking around with unfounded shame and hurt, or in an extreme case, worse. They are little girls and boys, our children, and everybody's children. And we need to do better than that.
Here's a few tips to keep your children protected while using social media:
- Wait. Make a pact with your friends that you will collectively agree to not allow your kids on digital connections until they are out of elementary school, maybe even middle school, and understand how to use it responsibly. It will help alleviate their sense that everyone is doing it if their best friends are not.
- You get the password or there is no account. Present this rule as you must have it in case of an emergency. Also, follow and friend every account. And be aware that kids often have multiple accounts under different names. It shouldn't take you long to figure out if you are not on the main account they use with their friends.
- Make sure their settings are private and that no personal information is visible or accessible anywhere.
- Sit with your child periodically and go through their friends, followers, and fans. Do they know them? How do they know them? Friending someone they met at a neighbor's birthday party 2 years ago is not someone they need to keep up with. And who are they following? Do they really know them? Sites like Instagram become a game to see who can get the most followers. Having 1000 online friends does not make you a better one in real life.
- If you allow photos ("selfies" are a popular and common thing), make sure they are age appropriate and on a private setting.
- Set limits of when and where they can use their technology. Does your child really need to go to bed with the phone and wake up with it, too? A good friend of mine had her young teenage daughter begging for jobs to do to earn phone time. Win Win.
- Talk with your kids and listen for what they're not saying. Watch mood changes, routine changes, grade changes, and friend changes. Children being bullied are often afraid to speak up for fear of making things worse. Awareness is everything, and in our situation, it is the best positive action we can take.
*The author of this article is speaking only of her family's personal experience, and each cyber-bullying case is unique. Here are some resources to help you raise your family's awareness:
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