Early this summer, Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in her boyfriend’s suicide. If you’re not already familiar with the tragedy, Carter’s boyfriend, Conrad Roy, confided in Carter about his depression and suicidal thoughts. Carter had sought treatment for mental illness as well, and ultimately talked — or rather, texted — Roy through his suicide. The case garnered national attention and people erupted with an appropriate mixture of horror and bewilderment. Carter’s actions were undoubtedly wrong, but the case caused a stir for another reason: what you tweet, text, post, and search never goes away. Unlike a face-to-face exchange that lasts only in our memory, Carter’s words will live forever — to be read in court, to Roy’s family, and back to her over and over again.
The paradox of technology’s dynamism and permanence makes it both thrilling and dangerous. For parents, educators, and other adults tasked with protecting and supporting young people, it is especially difficult to teach and train youth on proper media usage because it isn’t something we grew up with. Technology is seemingly in Generation Z’s bones — a first language, of sorts.
So what should we be looking out for? At Second Story for Teens in Crisis we see the same few issues over and over: “Youth having relationships that aren’t in their age demographic, posting or sending photos that aren’t appropriate, and meeting up with people they’ve found online,” says Tina Seeley, the Program Manager for Second Story for Teens in Crisis. Other notable causes include sharing too much personal information — potentially leading to an invasion of privacy or even trafficking — or good old fashioned bullying (called “cyber bullying” when it takes place online).
As concerned adults, the burden is on us to stay educated and to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of technology so that we can encourage young people to use it appropriately. But how do we do that when we’re learning along with them? The world of cyberspace is ever-changing, but there are a handful of foundational principles. As we walk this bumpy road together, keep these four basic things in mind:
- Youth communicate differently through technology than they do face-to-face.
It’s not just them, actually — adults do it, too. We use shorthand phrases and emojis, and research tells us that we’re also more honest. The Disinhibition Effect (from John Suler in The Psychology of Cyberspace) theorizes that we express ourselves more openly in cyberspace than in real life. It also states that we are more likely to do things we wouldn’t normally do.
Psychologists affirm that texting makes us feel like there is more space between the words we say and their consequences, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is messing with the way we communicate. Seeley believes that kids are experiencing the process of socialization altogether differently than their parents. “Parents should talk to their kids about how to make friends online and in real life,” she says. Ask kids if they communicate the same way with their friends over text as they do in person, and encourage them to reflect on their communication patterns.
- Statistics show that, more likely than not, kids have experienced cyber bullying — either as the victim or the bully.
Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number admit to acting as a bully, according to the i-SAFE foundation. Comparatively, about 1 in 4 kids report being bullied at school and about 30% of kids admit to being schoolyard bullies themselves. This differentiation points back to how we interact differently online and in-person — kids are more likely to be mean without the risk of witnesses or a face to face reaction from their victim.
Encourage young people to be on guard for bullies and predators online. Meghan Huebner, Vice President of Residential Services at Second Story emphasizes that parents need to teach their kids to trust no one and nothing when it comes to technological communication. “Nothing stays private…kids need to stay skeptical.”
- Young people probably won’t tell you if they confront cyber danger.
The i-SAFE foundation reports that over half of kids do not tell their parents if they’re being cyberbullied. Make it a point to ask young people if they’re being bullied at school or in cyberspace rather than waiting for them to approach you. It is safe to assume that they have already experienced cyberbullying somehow — and if they haven’t yet they may soon.
But take care with how you respond. The main reason kids do not tell their parents (or counselors, teachers, or adult confidantes, for example) that they’re experiencing cyberbullying is because they’re worried their parents will take away their computer privileges. Assure kids that the line of communication between the two of you is safe. Remind them you’re most concerned about their wellbeing. Make sure they understand that being a victim means it isn’t their fault. Be their advocate and their champion, and confront computer safety as a separate issue.
“Parents don’t understand how important social media is to a young person,” says Seeley. “Parents take things away which creates more issues. This generation is so involved in social media that it’s just a part of who they are. Parents need to show their kids that they’re still open to this part of their lives as long as they use it in an appropriate way.”
- Your best defense is a good offense.
The sheer volume of dangerous platforms available at your fingertips could make your head spin (and it probably already does), so it’s important to understand what is vying for a young person’s attention everyday. Teachers and law enforcement are seeing more and more apps and games like Sarahah, for example, an app geared toward youth that encourages people to leave “constructive” feedback for each other anonymously. Unsurprisingly, this often turns very ugly very fast.
Investigate tech trends, apps, and social media, and get familiar with a young people’s phone and internet presence like you would get to know their friends — ask questions, offer to participate, and stay informed. Seeley also encourages parents not to be afraid to set limits. Keeping the computer in a central location may not be an easy solution anymore, but Seeley encourages setting boundaries for phone usage. Kids can use their phones during the day to talk to their friends and keep in touch with you, but ask them to turn it in and night. “There’s no need to have their phone when they should be sleeping. When parameters are broken, put a consequence in place that isn’t taking the phone away. Disable the wifi in the house or limit their usage, for example.”
Second Story seeks to keep young people safe and help them make wise decisions. Youth who stay at the Teen Shelter have group and individual therapy sessions where they learn about healthy self-image, safety, making wise decisions and how to use social media responsibly. They also have access to family counseling, which is important for parents who feel out of touch with a new wave of cyber threats. Young people may come to the shelter after using their phones irresponsibly, often leading to a fight at home. They leave, though, with deeper knowledge and understanding regarding their risky behavior and they return to parents who are better equipped to help keep them safe.
Meanwhile, our Safe Youth Projects and Teen Center organize classes and bring in guest speakers about bullying, cyber danger, social media usage, and relationships. Texting, social media, and online communication is a massive part of young people’s lives, therefore it is an important conversation between our staff and young people, as well.
Technology is woven into the fabric of young people’s lives, their relationships, and their consciousness. To care about a young person is to care about their online presence and take proactive measures to ensure their safety. Make sure you place your stake in cyberspace so that you can support young people in every aspect of their lives — even technology.