Last weekend I read a thought provoking story about a mum and her attack by online trolls. It was a surprising story because the trolls were teenage boys, behaving pretty badly. But that wasn't what alarmed me.
What alarmed me was the response of other mums commenting on the story. They were not unkind. They were not outraged. They were not distressed.
They were scared.
"The whole cyberbullying thing is something that worries me so much"
"It's scary the world that kids are now facing"
"I'm not going to encourage my kids to use social media"
These are the worries of ordinary parents, about ordinary kids, and their exposure to the online world, particularly social media. They might be your fears too.
Research from the Family Online Safety Institute in the US suggests that social media is parents' greatest online fear. We're fearful of our kids being hurt and confused by others' comments and behaviour. We're fearful of our kids being bullied and traumatised through online interactions. We're most fearful of our kids ending up in headlines like this.
I'm quietly relieved that with my eldest approaching eight, we're still a little way off dealing with this issue (I think). But I was intrigued to know...
Should we be scared of social media?
I did some research and this is what I found out.
- We cannot protect our kids from social media. They will increasingly work and socialise online and they need to know how to behave and respond in that world. In fact research suggests that kids and teens see the online and offline worlds as seamless. They don't differentiate between the two so neither should we when it comes to teaching them how to interact with and handle others. They need the skills, knowledge and experience to do both.
- Trolling is not necessarily bullying. Bullying is repeated, ongoing misuse of power (physical or psychological) aimed at causing distress, subjugation or humiliation. Cyberbullying is using technology to bully; using text messages or social media posts to systematically spread rumours, gossip or launch attacks on others. When kids (or adults) write one off nasty comments on social media posts it's not bullying. It's just bad behaviour.
- Bullies should not be feared but pitied. Kids who bully others are often the victims of bullying themselves and tend to come from a family environment of disharmony, conflict, emotional neglect and less than ideal parenting. This doesn't excuse their behaviour but it might help us - and our kids - to understand and withstand it.
- Bullying is still more common at school than online. Rates are hard to quantify because bullying is difficult to define but bullying at school and face to face is still up to twice as common as online bullying. The relative anonymity of the Internet may increase the likelihood of nasty comments and bad behaviour but kids who are bullied online are usually bullied by people they also know offline.
How do we protect our kids?
We can't shield our children from the nastiness of others online any more than we can protect them offline. What we can do is help them to become robust, confident and resilient and give them the skills to deal with whatever comes their way.
Here are some top tips from positive psychology for raising resilient kids.
- Accentuate the positive. Kids who experience happiness, joy and laughter on a regular basis are more likely to see the world as happy and hopeful and to bounce back when exposed to the nastier things in life.
- Ensure social support. A close, supportive network of family and friends makes a big difference to children's resilience and well being and gives them a range of trusted people they might talk to about difficulties they are experiencing with other kids.
- Help kids to find their strengths and passions. Every child is good at something. Help yours to find where they excel and nurture that. Revel in their excitement and encourage them at every opportunity. It's a great way to boost the self esteem and confidence required to buffer setbacks and challenges.
- Promote problem solving. I've written before about how to help kids solve problems. It's an important skill for life!
- Lead the way. Don't just tell kids how to handle difficult situations. Show them. Model the behaviour that you want them to exhibit. If you whinge and complain about how others treat you, you're teaching them to see interactions with others as difficult and to respond negatively. Model resilience and a constructive approach and they'll follow suit.
So please don't fear social media. I have no doubt that you, as a smart, supportive and compassionate parent are raising resilient kids able to deal with any challenges that the online world presents.
But if you are struggling with this issue, these sites might help:
Are you worried about social media and cyberbullying?