Do you think kids chatting and misbehaving online is exclusively a teenage problem? You might be surprised to discover that children as young as 9 and 10 get into trouble for intentional or accidental transgressions committed online.
To be fair, most primary school kids would be shocked to be accused of cyber bullying. They truly believe that what happens between them and their friends online is all in fun and their words are never intended to hurt. Children of that age simply don't have enough life experience or good old-fashioned empathy to put themselves in the other person's shoes and imagine what it would feel like to receive an iMessage that says: "Rose, do you grow on poo?"
Rebecca is a well-adjusted 10-year old, sociable and outgoing. One Saturday afternoon, she was happy when two schoolmates unexpectedly dropped by on their way to the dairy. The girls started talking and playing with make-up. Suddenly Rebecca's iPod beeped with a message from another friend she wanted to know what Rebecca was doing. Distracted by her guests, Rebecca didn't stop to consider her friend's feelings. She simply replied that she was having fun with the two other girls, painting their toenails and planning to get ice cream shortly. The result? Her friend got hurt because she felt excluded.
Could Rebecca have handled it better? Definitely. As adults, we know to add pleasantries such as: "Wish you were here" or "Want to join us?" . We understand to include smileys and hearts and kisses in emails to soften the tone. Sometimes we even employ white lies in order to spare the other person's feelings. We are aware of the fact that a message saying: "We are having sooooo much fun" could be considered ultra-mean by the recipient who's bored at home.
Of course, no electronics, no problem. The trouble is, with technology progressing, most intermediate and even some primary schools require their students to have access to the internet once they have been able to find the best internet providers in my area: be it for research, blogging, or communicating with the teacher and the classmates. And, let's be honest here, schools are not totally to blame. Many parents are happy enough to give iPods and tablet computers to their children for Christmas or birthdays.
Don't get me wrong. It's wonderful that our children have access to devices that can answer almost any question on earth, from why is the sky blue to whether the tuatara is a lizard. It's great that they can present their learning outcomes using PowerPoint, videos on YouTube, or apps. It's fantastic that they can connect with their cousins and grandparents via email and Skype.
However, all these super devices give children the opportunity to hook up with their friends online. This can lead to late-night chatting (when they're meant to be falling asleep to iPod music) and, as we all know, when we're tired or in a rush, it's only too easy to write something that gets misinterpreted at the other end.
Children are just that: children. They may know how to change the background picture on an iPod, but they still need our guidance when it comes to using the iPod
to communicate with care.
"So which boy do you like?"
"I know. You like Justin."
It's easy to imagine how this text conversation can progress from a harmless information exchange to teasing and then cyber-bullying. So how soon should we teach our children e-manners? The answer is simple: as soon as they get access to e-communication.
what you can do
Kids can easily mistake sarcasm or a joke as a serious comment, particularly when it's written in a text or an email. Here's what you can do to help:
- Discuss the various ways of communication. Is iMessaging a good way to ask a friend about homework or organise to walk home together the next afternoon? Certainly. Is it a good way to argue about an issue? Definitely not. Not only can it lead to misunderstandings, but if you're cross, it's easier to type mean things than to say them face-to-face.
- Teach your child to distinguish between friendly banter and true cyber bullying. A friend reminding you about an embarrassing event at school or bragging about their overseas trip is probably just being insensitive. Negative comments aimed to hurt, threatening remarks or inappropriate photos are definitely bullying and your child should tell you about them straight away.
- If your child gets a confusing text from a friend, encourage them to talk about it in person, not online. A conventional conversation is less likely to lead to further misunderstanding. Also, it may happen that somebody else is using the friend's device as a prank, so remind your child not to believe everything they read online.
- Remind your child to think twice about the impact of their own words. Teach them the value of thoughtful texting, such as considering the content of each message and the recipient's mindset before pressing the SEND button.
- Put rules in place to limit online chatting and texting. A good rule of thumb is no e-communication after bedtime and before breakfast. Sleepy senders and recipients are a sure formula for a cyber-mess.
beyond iMessages and emails
Even the most vigilant parents, the ones who know the child has to be 13 before they get a Facebook account, can get caught off-guard by the ever-changing face of the Internet.
- Did you know, for example, that Google+ is classified as a social network? A Google+ account can be misused for online chatting.
- Many game platforms allow children to cyber-communicate with friends.
- Even Pinterest with its boards of photos and jokes can be used for cyber-bullying.
- Instagram isn't just a harmless photo sharing service. Much like Facebook, it can now be used by bullies to publish embarrassing photos of the victim, label an insulting image with the victim's name, post derogatory comments under the victim's photos or even create a fake account in the victim's name and post nasty comments about others that seem to come from the victim. Your child can follow' users and have others following' your child's photos. Followers might not always be who they say they are (name, age, sex, etc) and unless you turn off the geotag on your child's phone, their photos could be advertising their exact whereabouts.