This week, a newly released poll confirmed what many parents have long known or suspected: Their children and teens are being bullied online through apps, games and social media. The data reveals that half of teens in New York City report they have experienced some form of cyberbullying and more than half know how to hide their online behavior from their parents.
It also shows that among millennial parents, who themselves grew up with the internet, 82% are concerned about their children being cyberbullied by the time they are teens. And among parents of teens, nearly two-thirds are concerned their children are being cyberbullied.
As the parent of a teenager who died by suicide after he was viciously cyberbullied, I want parents to understand how serious the risks of cyberbullying are. And as the head of a foundation dedicated to ending bullying in person and online, I want to tell parents that there are many proactive steps they can take to keep their children safe and to prevent them from becoming bullies of others.
The most important thing we can do as parents is to teach our children not just how to relate to others, but how to make real connections and imagine the world from the perspective of another person. We all want our children to be respected and respectful.
We can start early teaching them right from wrong and positively enforce when children make kind and compassionate choices toward others. For older children, we can then extend the teaching of empathy to the internet. We can model this behavior in our own online interactions. Show your child how to offer a compliment on an Instagram post, tell them how you know Facebook friends in real life and watch a YouTube video that makes you both smile.
We can recall from our days as teenagers that having discussions with our parents about serious or sensitive topics was uncomfortable for all parties involved. But the more often parents practice engaging teenagers about online safety, empathy, emotions and trust, the better they can get at it and the higher their chances are of understanding their teenage children.
We need to listen and validate their experiences in the hopes of gaining their trust. Having continual open conversations will help break down barriers in communication when youth experience challenges and struggles. We have to communicate openly and constantly with our teenagers, especially when they don’t want to engage.
The survey shows that the chances of a teen being the target or bystander of online bullying is very high. Parents who are able to openly strategize with their teen how to engage online can be a part of leading their teen to be safer and perhaps even become Upstanders for others.
Upstanders both in person and online stand up to bullies, actively include and reach out to those targeted by bullies and help create and foster environments of respect and kindness. We need Upstanders online as much as we need them in our classrooms and sports teams.
Upstanders both directly intervene — such as when a friend or family member checks in with a child or teenager and/or openly shares what they see with parents — and deploy the tools and policies that social media and online platform providers have to report and monitor cyberbullying, hate speech and other dangerous online activities. Teach them to report or delete rather than share or retweet something negative or harmful. Make sure your kids know what to report and how to report it.
The best way to create good digital citizens out of our children is to ensure that they are good citizens offline. As parents, we should encourage our children to interact and learn to play fairly with other kids through activities like sports, scouting, theater camp and marching band.
We should encourage coaches and teachers to have bullying prevention programs like #Day1 where leaders set expectations for their classrooms and teams and ask their students and athletes to commit to becoming Upstanders. Parents should ask what mental health care is available to students who are bullied and those who are doing the bullying. Every school and childcare program should have curricula for mental health and bullying prevention.
We wouldn’t hand our children a paring knife to help in the kitchen or the keys to the family car without making sure they know what they need to do to be safe. In the same way, we must ensure they know how to use tools like tablets, phones and computers to get where they need to go and help them learn valuable skills.