By Shawn Marie Edgington, Founder of the Great American NO BULL Challenge and bestselling author of the Parent’s Guide to Texting, Facebook and Social MediaThe NO BULL Challenge will use the power of social media to inspire students to build each other up, instead of tearing each other down. For more information, please visit The Great American No Bull Challenge website.
With today’s technology and the fact that kids are constantly connected, parents are more challenged than ever before to keep their children safe and secure online. Did you know that almost half of our kids have experienced some form of online harassment? The fact is that 85% of teens don’t even tell their parents.
Here are a few questions I’ve been asked to give an opinion on. I hope they help you better navigate this new frontier in parenting.
Why are most parents ignoring the potential threat of social media?
Parents are ignoring the threat because most parents aren’t aware of what’s happening with teens and technology, or they don’t want to believe their child could be the one who is either the online bully or the target of one. It’s easier to think “Not my child” or “That could never happen where I live,” but the reality is a one-click nightmare can happen anywhere and to any child.
As a parent, how did you come to terms with what a cyberbully was?
To be honest, I didn’t know anything about cyberbullies until my daughter was the target of a group of cyberbullies. That’s why I wrote my book. The book is a direct result of a personal experience I had with my then 16-year-old daughter who was threatened via text message and cyberbullied on Facebook.
To quote my daughter Nicole, one of the national spokespeople for the Great American NO BULL Challenge, “Learning how to deal with cyberbullies is a complicated thing to do on your own. It’s my goal to help the youth of America gain knowledge when it comes to cyberbullies and become more aware of those around them that need help, but are too afraid to ask.”
If I would have known then what I know now, things wouldn’t have gotten so out of hand for my daughter. As a parent, I know how it feels to be desperate for answers and to live what I refer to as a one-click nightmare – and unfortunately, my daughter does too. I’ve made it my mission to show parents how to “parent” around technology, and help parents prevent their children from experiencing a one-click nightmare of their own.
Why did you decide to launch the Great American NO BULL Challenge?
It became painfully honest to me that as a 45-year-old mom, I wasn’t going to be able to affect real and significant change at the youth level, which is what needs to be done. I also wanted to show the world how America’s teens could use their love for the arts and social media in a positive way to stand up and help eliminate bullying. The sad reality is, we’ve got 25 million teens in America who believe their voices aren’t being heard.
The Great American NO BULL Challenge gives 6-12th grade students the opportunity to get their voices heard on a national platform. Teens get to write and direct their own videos on the subject of bullying, and potentially win a trip to a star-studded red carpet awards event, where they will be the celebrity. The Great American NO BULL Challenge is my passion project, one that is near and dear to my heart.
What are some of the challenges parents face today?
One of the challenges is that we don’t know what’s going on and 64% of teenagers say they do things online they don’t want their parents to know about.
Many parents aren’t aware of what happens on their child’s social networking sites, and I have found that most parents don’t know about the age limits social networking sites have set – Facebook requires all users to be at least 13-years-old.
Another challenge is that 71% of teens receive messages from strangers online and 30% contemplate meeting them face-to-face – kids don’t think about what could actually happen to them by sharing personal information with strangers. Many of our teens think “the more friends they have, the more popular they’ll be,” so they will accept friend requests on Facebook from complete strangers.
Let’s be honest. As a responsible parent, would we ever hand our 4-year-old child a steak knife and ask them to slice a tomato without guidance? Never! The same thing goes for when we hand our child a cell phone or when we allow them to set up their first social networking account. We’ve got to provide direction, warn them about the dangers, and help them when they encounter difficult situations.
It’s up to us to get involved. Contact your school and find out if they’ve implemented the support system that allows students to text in for help, whether they’re getting bullied online or in person, if there is a fight that’s going to break out, or maybe their friend has gotten into drugs or whatever – it’s an amazing system that allows students to anonymously get support while they’re at school. Proactive support is always better than reactive support, and for $2000, every school can afford to get this system implemented!
How has technology changed this generation of youth from the previous generation?
In this day and age, kids get a thrill out of embarrassing or harassing others online by posting videos and pictures. At what age do our kids have the maturity to use technology with empathy and regard for others? It’s quite possible that our children might not be ready for Facebook at the age of 13, 15 or even 16 years old.
For parents, it’s vital that we stay on top of what’s happening in our children’s digital world, and that we provide them with the guidance and support they need to wade through the potpourri of trouble that’s just waiting for them around the corner.
How common is sexting? Is it something parents should be concerned about?
It’s becoming more and more common every day, and it’s definitely something parents need to be concerned about. Thirty-nine percent of teenagers send or post sexually suggestive messages and 48% say they have received these same type of messages. Children as young as 8 years old are getting sext requests from their classmates! What is going on, and what can we do about this? Our kids will make mistakes, but we’ve got to help them minimize them as much as possible, because the wrong mistake can have a terrible outcome.
What can parents do to eliminate these new threats?
It’s all about proactive awareness and involvement so we can safeguard our children when they’re using social media. If we understand what the steps are that we need to take, we can teach our children about the potential dangers of social networking, and empower them to protect themselves from online predators and cyberbullies.
Take note of the 7 steps to safeguarding your children online:
- Communication Is King. We need to talk to our children and empower them to defend against textual harassment, online predators, sexting and cyberbullies. We talk about sex, drugs and drinking, but now we’ve got to make it a point to add the dangers of technology to our “don’t” list.
- Execute a Contract that Spells out the “Rules of Engagement.” It’s important to define cell phone and Internet boundaries and consequences before there’s a problem. If rules are broken, we need to have a response plan ready to go.
- Live by the Social Network Rules. The dangers around social networking are extreme, and are usually the place where cyberbullies make their homes. Get to know what your kids are doing on sites like Facebook, YouTube and Skype to help them protect themselves from danger.
- Understand the Signs of Cyberbullying. Use proactive and defensive measures to help your kids defend against online bullies.
- Use “Parental Controls” to Set Text Boundaries. Setting text boundaries is crucial to the health and safety of our children.
- Teach Your Kids to Ignore/Block/Report. Empowering children to employ the Ignore/Block/Report system is critical should they ever be harassed by text message.
- Know if Your Child Is a Cyberbully and Take Responsibility! The only way you’re going to know if your child is responsible for causing other children grief while using social media is if you’re paying attention to what they’re doing online and how they’re using their mobile devices. If you find out your child is to blame for any online harassment, it’s your responsibility to take action to eliminate their ability to continue their assaults!
Why is cyberbullying so dangerous?
As parents, we have to stay in the know, be aware of what’s really happening on the Wild Wild Web, and keep the lines of communication open, no matter what! It’s not sticks and stones anymore; it’s the relentless and continuous threats and ongoing harassment that’s hurting our teens – it’s literally breaking down their self-esteem – text by text and post by post.
And no matter what you think, words do hurt! And the fact is, words can kill!
What should parents take away from my experience?
The most important take away from what my family and I went through is that it can happen to anyone, and that no one is immune. Cyberbullying is everyone’s reality, and it’s up to us to get involved in order to facilitate change.