How to shield your kid from smartphone cyberbullies

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It's never too soon to start teaching your kids to be safe online.
It's never too soon to start teaching your kids to be safe online.
Photo: Marcus Kwan/Flickr CC

Gabriella van Rij thinks we all need to be kinder to each other — especially online. To that end, she’s leading a kindness movement aimed at eliminating the cyberbullying that can happen when kids get their mitts on the hottest gifts around: smartphones and tablets like the iPhone and iPad.

“The truth is,” says van Rij, “smartphones can be weapons in the wrong hands.”

Smartphones and tablets are the most-wanted gifts for kids and adults alike this year. Children want the same devices their parents love to play games, take photos and — here’s the tricky part — interact on social media. While smartphones can be powerful tools for making connections, they can also be used to bully others.

Gabriela’s Foundation is van Rij’s Los Angeles-based non-profit. To help put an end to the intimidation and humiliation that kids can inflict with their new gadgets, she has visited schools across the United States and spoken with students about their digital habits.

One student told her about a time where he was followed into a bathroom, filmed, and then the subsequent clip was uploaded to Instagram with mean-spirited hashtags. Van Rij calls this behavior cyber torment, and it comes from the disconnect that digital natives like our children have when interacting online.

“Cyberbullying on social media is a real thing,” says van Rij, “and parents must keep an eye out for signs that their child is a victim of cyber torment, or possibly an instigator.”

While some say that the concept of trigger-warnings and safe spaces have taken on a lunacy ripe for satire, van Rij has some common-sense suggestions that can help all parents keep their kids safe.

What to look for

How can parents tell when their children are victims (or perpetrators) of this form of bullying? These are the behaviors to watch out for:

  • Isolation. For example, when you pick your child up from school, does she frequently stand by herself, apart from her classmates? Sometimes, a student will isolate herself if she feels she is being ignored or ridiculed.
  • Mood swings or loss of interest in previously anticipated activities. Being harassed online can consume your thoughts, upset your emotions, and cause loss of appetite and concentration.
  • Overly aggressive behavior and mean speech. Students will mimic what they see around them. If your child is hurting, her actions will show it. Connect with your child’s emotions.

Teaching your kids

It may seem old fashioned, but the best way to teach your kids to avoid being a bully, online or off, is to be kind, open and gentle in your own comments, both on social media and in your interactions in general.

“There shouldn’t be a double standard,” says van Rij. “When you see someone being unkind in real life, don’t do nothing.”

Instead of expecting your children to “do as you say, not as you do,” it’s better to show the kind of behavior you want to see online and in your everyday life. Your kids see your social media behavior, too. You can be the example and influence your children in a positive way by avoiding anti-social behavior like bad language and stubborn, disrespectful opinions.

“Teach your child that we all judge, and we have a right to our opinions,” says van Rij, “but we need to use wisdom as to when and how to voice what we think.”

Tell your child how you feel about what is going on in the world, both politically and socially. Use the moments when they see something you wish they hadn’t as a platform to open the discussion. Remember not to just vent online, and remind your kids to do the same. Of course, you’ll need to provide a safe place where your children can feel heard.

Finally, van Rij, says, make sure you re-read your own comments online before you hit enter, and teach your kids this valuable habit.

Better smartphone behavior

Smartphones have a tendency to stifle family conversations, making that valuable safe space harder to come by. Try to agree with your child on some smartphone-free times, before you get into a power struggle in the moment.

“For example,” says van Rij, “make it a rule that during mealtimes phones are completely turned off (not even on vibrate mode, but totally OFF) and put in a pile in a different room.”

Whatever the case, having healthy boundaries around smartphone and tablet use, both online and in the real world, will help your kids avoid being the victims of (or the creators of) cyber torment.

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