USA WEEKEND columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about digital etiquette.
My daughter is starting middle school, and her friends are getting smartphones, iPods, laptops — all the tools that make it easier to communicate, do homework ... and bully someone. I worry about this new school, where students who don't know my child may target her because of her "different" style of dress or her haircut. I want to protect her from ridicule and gossip circulating on the Internet – and especially don't want her to end up as another suicide statistic. What can I do?
– Name withheld
I don't often get to trot out a Ben Franklin aphorism, but here goes: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I'm glad you're thinking ahead about the potential for your daughter to be a victim of cyberbullying; every parent should be so wise.
Earlier this year Janell Burley Hofmann, a mother of five, published iRules: What Every Tech Health Family Needs to Know about Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up. At the core of this amazingly useful book is what she calls the iRules contract, the agreement she and her husband negotiated with their then-13-year-old son. Among the 18 points, these three will lay the foundation for your prevention efforts:
- It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren't I the greatest?
- I will always know the password.
- Hand the phone to one of your parents promptly at 7:30 p.m. every school night and every weekend night at 9 p.m. It will be shut off for the night and turned on again at 7:30 a.m.
When it comes to cyberbullying, Hofmann calls upon parents to be both vigilant and resourceful. As she wrote: "Parents must talk to their children about it, ask them what they have seen, help them identify it, and encourage them to express their online challenges, problems, and conflicts with you." More specifically, she calls upon moms and dads to teach their kids to "report, block, and delete" so-called friends long before a sour relationship turns into harassment or worse."
Let me also remind you that most bullying takes place face-to-face, with cyberbullying only an add-on to what our kids may be experiencing in school. (Check out www.stopbullying.gov.) Fortunately, more and more schools are establishing anti-bullying rules and policies, with student codes of conduct and penalties for violators. As the new year begins, find out what those policies are in your daughter's school. (If they don't exist, talk to the principal about writing some.) Finally, encourage your daughter to be what's known as an "upstander," not a "bystander." Teach her to speak up if she knows of anyone being bullied. Bullies thrive on fear and silence; we can't give them that.
Read more of Steven Petrow's Your Digital Life columns here. Submit your to Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Steven on Twitter @StevenPetrow and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow.