As a parent, I know that cyber-bullying has been a hot topic lately. It seems everywhere we look there’s a PTA meeting about it, or consultant being hired to give us tips. And the most extreme cases have led victimized kids to suicide. Yesterday’s New York Times carried yet another wake-up call article for parents. Among many frightening stories, it discussed a child who had no presence on Facebook, but whose peers had created a page using his name and images and were posting nasty comments, as if by him, about other kids. As a result, this child was shunned, taunted and ultimately physically threatened.
The idea that your child has a brand online is hard for some of us parents to imagine. We have a hard enough time managing our own online brands, both personal and professional. Now, we are told, we should have Google Alerts set up for our kids. (It’s a good idea, when you think about it.)
So what can we do to protect our childrens’ good names?
We can teach them to be cautious about what they put online, including texts and IM messages, and consider it public. We all know college admissions staff, as well as HR personnel, regularly look at websites and social media to do background checks. Which leads to my next point…
Let your kids know you watch what they do (and then actually watch). Some parents are putting keystroke capturing software on their kids’ computers so they can see where they’ve been. I periodically review texts. Kids should know that we’re paying attention to what they say and do in cyberspace, just like we do anywhere else.
Teach a healthy skepticism about both what and who is online. In a media literacy classes I teach in schools, I talk about how what you see isn’t exactly always what you get in terms of sources of content. But we can extend this to the home communications environment. Kids need to know that every avatar isn’t necessarily who they say they are. And that any given text or Facebook post may not be from the person listed. Impersonation is one a common occurrence in cyber-bullying. The lure of online postings–for both bullies and victims–is the anonymity. Dealing with someone directly, in person or over the phone, can take away some of that power.
Finally, we need to get digi-literate. I teach classes in online brand management and social media for professionals, and I’d say a good majority of my attendees have kids. Yet most are only touching the surface of social networking and online engagement. I’m starting to think I need to add a new call to action: If you don’t want to deal with Twitter, Facebook, IM, interactive tools, and texting for you, do it for your kids.