Internet safety for kids and teens is a hot topic. We all want our kids to be safe online. Unfortunately, most of the information available to parents on online safety is drawn from research on face-to-face bullying. Bullying and online aggression are not always the same. Aggression is a natural impulse that kids learn to temper through trial and error. Just as we must sometimes let our kids work out their own issues at school or in their peer groups, they need the freedom online to learn how to respond to aggression, or experience the repercussions of their own aggression.
Kids are often more sophisticated than parents in both their use of technology and their ability to navigate online communication. They use different tools. For example, adults use Facebook at a far higher rate that kids, while kids and youth use Snapchat far more than adults. This can make make it difficult to seem credible when talking to your kids about internet safety.
People often say, “Don’t feed the trolls.” This means that if someone says something mean or abusive to you online, ignore them or block them. This is similar to the advice given by cyberbullying resources for kids and parents. Sadly, it is a vast oversimplification of the range of behaviors and levels of threat in the online world. Some online language is inherently violent. Some is merely unpleasant or mean. In order for kids to be safe online, they need discernment. They need to be able to tell the difference between a situation that is upsetting and a situation that is dangerous. Parents must also be able to tell the difference between a potentially dangerous situation and one that may help their kids learn and develop important life skills.
Types of online aggression:
Online aggression as an extension of bullying at school or other face-to-face environments.
Many kids use electronic means to communicate with one another. They use text messaging, Snapchat, Instagram, and other applications to talk, share pictures, and make plans. Unfortunately, sometimes they also use these means to share damaging pictures, attack or disparage other kids, or gang up on one kid. While this type of aggression is related to bullying, it’s important to note that in the online world, targets of aggression are not inhibited by their ability to protect themselves physically as they are in the physical world. However, there may be face-to-face repercussions if they respond aggressively online. If bullying, whether online or face-to-face, involves sexual language, threats of violence, or hate speech, it should be reported to an adult.
Online aggression amongst kids in the same age range that only takes place online.
Some kids participate in online gaming environments developed for kids, such as Minecraft. This have a social media component – they can send messages to each other while playing. While these environments are set up to be relatively safe for kids, some still may act aggressively by trying to damage other kids’ virtual creations or by using aggressive speech. These situations are generally developmentally appropriate for kids and may allow them to develop healthy responses to aggression.
Online aggression by anonymous users that may be adults.
When participating in public social media forums such as Snapchat, Twitter, or Instagram, kids may be verbally attacked or threatened by anonymous users who may be adults. This can also happen in online gaming environments that are populated by adults, such as Call of Duty. Adults may use violent or sexually aggressive language towards kids. Girls in particular may be subject to criticism of their appearance or sexual language. Kids do not have the necessary maturity or emotional development to deal with aggressive adults. Just as you would not want your child exposed to an abusive or sexually predatory adult at school or church, they need to learn to avoid and report online aggression by adults when it is inappropriate or violent.
So how do we help our kids cope with these types of aggression? Here are five ways you can help keep your kids stay safe while not stifling important developmental experiences.
1) Only allow your kids access to developmentally appropriate social media and games.
Spend some time looking into the age range for the youth-focused applications that your kids want to access. Minecraft is appropriate for middle-school kids. Call of Duty is not. Beyond the relative level of violence involved in each platform, Minecraft is designed for kids who want to pretend to build stuff – Call of Duty is for adults who want to pretend to kill stuff. Do the math.
While it may be tempting to get your child a smartphone in elementary school, keep in mind that it will also allow them to have access to any other child with a smartphone at any time, and vice versa. Cyberbullying can start as early as third grade. Devices like the Kindle Fire have extensive built in controls for parents – iPhones do not. If you’re not willing to learn how to limit your child’s access to inappropriate content, you should not buy them devices that can access text messaging or social media.
2) Teach your kids about the history behind hate speech.
Hate speech is never okay. Disparaging language based on race, religion, disability, sexuality, gender, or physical appearance is psychologically damaging and perpetuates violence. Teaching your kids the history behind structural inequality and civil rights will help them understand why hateful language is so damaging and may also give them the opportunity to educate other kids. The website A Mighty Girl has a large list of books on inclusiveness and social justice for a variety of age ranges. Kids need to be able to tell the difference between hate speech and appropriate expression of emotions.
3) Teach your kids the difference between anger and abuse.
People use a lot of disparaging and angry language on the internet. This does not mean that they are dangerous or sick. But the lack of face-to-face cues combined with a lack of immediate repercussions can make people think it’s okay to say just about anything. However, not everyone engages in abusive speech on the internet, even if they participate in heated debates or angry disagreements. Abusive speech includes:
Direct threats of violence. “I will kill you” is a direct threat, “I wish you would die” is not. While both comments are very negative, the first indicates a level of delusion that allows the writer to think that threatening to hurt someone they don’t know is appropriate and proportional. The second is the expression of a violent wish – not pleasant, but probably not dangerous. A younger child should not be exposed to either comment. A teenager may be able to respond appropriately to the latter, but should immediately report the former to an adult.
Sexually explicit or violent comments. Sexual comments towards children and pre-teens are inappropriate and potentially dangerous. One of the major issues with the internet is the message that sexuality is performative and based in power dynamics rather than pleasure and trust. Protecting younger youth and kids from this message as they are developing their identity is paramount. While teens may use social media and the internet as a healthy way to explore their sexual identities, they should be aware that sexual threats, harassment, or coercion are inappropriate and often illegal.
4) Help your kids identify adult aggressors and encourage them to tell you immediately.
If your kid or teen suspects that they are being targeted by an adult online, they should report it to a trusted adult immediately. While some teens may seem quite mature, they are not neurologically equipped to make healthy decisions if they are attacked or approached by a predatory adult online. How can they identify an adult vs. someone their age? The adult will likely use language differently. Each age group has it’s own vernacular online and adults will deviate from this. If an anonymous person ever suggests your child meet them in person, immediately report them to the social media platform administration and the police.
5) Teach your kids how to disconnect from the internet and center themselves.
People have a tendency to not notice their emotions or bodies when they’re using electronic devices. How many times have you gotten up from your desk and realized that your body was stiff because you’d been sitting for hours? How many times have you reacted defensively or angrily to something you read on your computer or phone, and realize later that you shouldn’t have? This is because we disassociate from our physical world when we’re engaged in electronic communication. Here are some ways you and your kids to check back in with yourselves and recognize if emotions are getting out of control.
Look away from your screen (or turn it off). Take some deep breaths. Notice if you have tension in your body. Notice if you’re having any strong feelings.
Get up and stretch your body. See if you notice a sense of relief or release. Consider what may have made you tense or angry.
Get a cool drink of water and notice how it feels as you sip it and swallow it. Again, notice if you have any feelings of anger, fear, or tension. Consider what may have caused them.
Try and notice if you’re reacting strongly to something you’re reading or seeing online. How does your body feel? Where does the tension manifest? Do you feel compelled to respond? What might happen if you respond in your current emotional state? Are those scenarios helpful? Will your response have a positive outcome for you or anyone else?
Recognize that when your emotions are fired up, you are not capable of making decisions that take future implications into consideration. Your hind brain wants relief or gratification in the moment, and it can’t reason or predict possible future outcomes. When we’re angry or scared, our hind brains often override these higher functions. This is why it is crucial to disconnect from the conflict, if only for a few minutes, before deciding how to respond. Kids need to start learning this skill as early as possible, but they can’t learn it if adults don’t model it for them.
Understanding the complexity of online interaction is the first step in helping your kids make good decisions online. Keep in mind that too much restriction may keep your kids from telling you if they get into trouble. Stay up to date with the technology so you can be a credible source when your kids need to talk about their online experiences. This will also help you learn how to limit your kids’ ability to access social media that is inappropriate for their level of development, while allowing them to learn to use a ubiquitous form of communication that they will need to master in their adult lives. Be patient with yourself and your kids. The way we access and use the internet is constantly in flux. Flexibility is key.