By Samantha Wu
If your son or daughter comes home after school and heads for the computer, you can feel confident that they’re under your roof and safe and sound, right?
Not in today’s world, unfortunately. Their playground has moved online, but so has the playground bully. Cyberbullying is one danger that you can’t easily protect your kids from, even in your own home.
Children who spend time online are involved in a cyber-world that is largely ungoverned. Many are members of networking sites such as MSN Messenger or Facebook, and they’re not careful enough about who has their personal information and how and where it could be spread.
“Ninety-five per cent of kids in Canada are using the MSN program,” says Debbie Gordon, managing director of Mediacs, a company that provides workshops on media literacy to kids and parents.
Parents, however, are much slower to become aware of interactive networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook and even slower to find out that they can be popular tools kids use to bully other children.
“There are kids who are maligning, very deliberately, other kids and who are using bullying tools and bullying tactics [through the Internet to target other kids],” says Gordon.
She is quick to note that not every child using the Internet to connect with friends is doing so maliciously.
“In a lot of cases they just haven’t understood what they’ve said,” Gordon says. “They haven’t put a ‘jk’ [Internet acronym for just kidding] or an ‘lol’ [acronym for laugh out loud] behind that communication.”
Luckily, there are ways to determine whether your child is simply chatting harmlessly with other friends online or whether they are a victim of harmful and slanderous posts and comments.
Bill Belsey, creator of the sites Cyberbullying.ca and Bullying.org, says there are signs to watch out for if you believe your child is a victim of cyberbullying.
Being aware of your child’s Internet usage is the first step to teaching them about Internet safety and to prevent them from being bullied online.
“You have to be involved in your child’s online communications,” says Gordon. “Know how they set up their accounts, who is on their buddy lists, if they have a profile, and how many profiles, in their social networks.”
Doing so does not necessarily mean becoming the Internet police, she emphasizes. It could take the form of a casual conversation, for example, asking who your child’s new online friends are.
As those casual conversations take place, a few words of parental advice go a long way. Let your child know that in it’s not a good idea to chat with strangers or people they don’t know well online, just as in the real world.
Randy Micucci, product manager of Windows Live Spaces and Windows Live Messenger (the latest version of MSN Messenger), says that a current trend is to gather as many “friends” as possible.
“I ask kids how many friends or contacts they have on their lists and it’s a badge of honour,” says Micucci. “They get upwards of two or three hundred friends. When you ask them, ‘how many of these contacts are you really close with?’, they say ‘well, there may be some I don’t know’.”
There is a way to control this, however. Various messaging services have different functions which allow users to see which of their contacts have them on their lists. This helps to eliminate strangers and people your child wishes to block from contacting them.
As well, it’s important to know that many networking websites and messaging programs ask users for personal information (full names, addresses and phone numbers) when registering. Often this information is not necessary, but many kids tend not to think twice about typing in what they know. Have a talk with your children about Internet safety and why it’s important to keep this information private.
Belsey says keeping the family computer in an open location (the kitchen or the living room) with plenty of foot traffic can also help you keep an open eye on what your children are doing online.
If you determine that your child is a victim of cyberbullying, the main thing to remember is to keep the lines of communication open. Encourage them to talk to you about the situation and to take action from a member of authority, either a guidance counsellor at school or a police officer.
The best way to track and stop a cyberbully is to keep track of communications by printing out e-mails and archiving instant messaging comments in case authorities need to be brought in, the experts say.
And soon, there should be clear guidelines in Canada’s schools for dealing with the problem.
In the summer of 2007, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation voted unanimously to create an emergency task force. The group will establish a national policy to deal with cyberbullying in school, and possible punishments.
Educating yourself about Internet messaging programs, networking sites and the safety features that are out there will greatly reduce the chances of your child being harmed online.
Most importantly, keeping an open line of communication will show that your children can trust you — and that will mean they will want to keep you informed about what they’re doing and who they’re taking to online.