Helping Your Kids Stay Safe in the Virtual World

By Sutter Health East Bay Region

“OM G! U c Emily? She’s a G4N GF!” Translated in parent-speak this means, “Oh my God! You see Emily? She’s a good for nothing girlfriend.” Remember the days when playground bullies only stole milk money? Today, cyberbullies reach way beyond the playground, through cyberspace and deep within personal lives to humiliate their victims in front of an audience of hundreds, thousands or more, instantaneously.

 

“Cyberbullying is the most common online risk for teens,” says Derek Johnson, D.O., Sutter East Bay Medical Foundation family medicine specialist. “Unlike face-to-face confrontations, cyberbullying is often anonymous, can travel further and faster, ‘goes viral’ through endless replication, and can leave an essentially permanent digital footprint.”

 

Cyber what?

Cyberbullying takes place on electronic technology, such as cell phones, computers and tablets as well as communication tools, including social media sites, text messages, chat rooms and websites. Examples include:

• Breaking into someone else’s online account and sending damaging messages

• Pretending to be someone else online to hurt another person

• Sending mean messages or threats to a person’s email account or cell phone

• Spreading rumors online or through texts

• Posting hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites or web pages

• Circulating sexually suggestive pictures, videos or messages about a person

 

Online safety tips

Talk with your child about cyberbullying. “Keep communication open. If your teen trusts you, he or she will let you help them navigate through this very challenging time,” advises Dr. Johnson, “Be sure your children know the risks of using social media and posting personal information online. Whatever they send or post electronically lives virtually forever, and future college recruiters or employers may be able to access damaging information posted during teen years.”

 

Supervise their use of the internet.

Get to know what websites your kids are accessing— many sites have a minimum age for signing up. Come up with a ‘family online-use plan’ and have regular family meetings with your kids to discuss online topics, privacy settings as well as what’s appropriate to post and text. “Set time limits on devices where kids can communicate by text or phone,” adds Dr. Johnson. “Teens feel incredible amounts of stress if they do not respond to a text quickly. They fear their friends will no longer like them if they do not respond.”

 

Know what to do if your child is bullied.

“Take it seriously. The long-term physical and emotional consequences of cyberbullying are devastating,” cautions Irmeen Ashraf, M.D., a Sutter Delta Medical

Center pediatrician. “File an online complaint with the website to have an offensive post, comment or photo removed.” If the bullying happened on school grounds, set up a meeting with the teacher and/or school administrators to come up with an action plan to stop the bullying. Your school may also offer counseling services to support your child through this difficult process. If your child feels physically threatened, be sure to alert the police. “In addition to expulsion from school,” says Dr. Ashraf, “there are possible legal and criminal penalties for cyberbullying. Some bullies have been charged with felony aggravated stalking, libel and child pornography, for the electronic distribution of a nude photo of a minor.”

 

Partner with your pediatrician.

Sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, isolation are all signs that something is wrong. Your pediatrician can help you rule out other diseases, and can give you resources for handling bullying, if that’s what’s causing your child’s symptoms. “While there are risks, social media also offers many benefits for tweens and teens, including e-learning and job skills,” reminds Dr. Johnson. “Help your kids stay safe in the real and virtual worlds.”

 

For more parenting articles, go to Sutter Health East Bay Region blog: www.newsroom.suttereastbay.org