Harvard Health Letters
It's no secret that children and teenagers are spending a tremendous amount of time online. Popular digital communities include social media sites such as
According to one poll, more than half of youths log on to some type of social media site at least once a day. Roughly one in four logs on to such sites at least 10 times a day.
Although digital communities enable youths to socialize with peers and develop multimedia skills, these online forums also have risks. A common one is cyberbullying -- a form of bullying that takes place entirely online in cyberspace. Another is sexting, a term that combines the words sex and texting and refers to the exchange of sexually explicit digital messages and images. Fortunately there are ways for parents to help their children avoid these new types of harm.
Youths who engage in cyberbullying use cell phones, computers, and other digital devices to attack peers. The methods are as varied as the technology. Cyberbullies may use text messaging and blogs to spread rumors or share embarrassing information about peers. In "text wars," a group of youths sends hundreds or thousands of messages to victims -- who then incur large cell phone bills (unless they're lucky enough to have plans with unlimited text messaging). Other cyberbullies post insulting or sexually explicit comments on victims'
One survey found that 43 percent of teenagers said they'd been cyberbullied in the previous year. This form of bullying is more common among girls than boys, and most prevalent at ages 15 and 16. Although some teens shrug off such attacks, others become angry, hurt, embarrassed, or scared.
One national survey found that 20 percent of American teenagers have sent or posted nude or seminude digital images of themselves to peers, while 39 percent of teenagers have sent sexually suggestive text messages, e-mails, or instant messages to others. Most of these teens sent sexually suggestive content to their girlfriends or boyfriends, intending to be flirtatious or funny. But sexting can prove embarrassing once a relationship ends, because digital images live on forever. Sexting also exposes teens to legal action.
For example, a 14-year-old girl posted about 30 nude pictures of herself on her own social networking site. Prosecutors initially charged her with distributing child pornography, but then dropped the charges when she agreed to undergo counseling.
In another case, police charged a 17-year-old boy with possession of child pornography and sexual exploitation of a child after he posted nude pictures of his 16-year-old girlfriend on his social networking site. The teen posted the pictures after becoming angry at his girlfriend.
KEEPING KIDS SAFE
There's nothing new about teens' developmental struggles with aggressive and sexual behavior, but technology appears to have had an amplifying effect. The optimistic view is that reasonable standards and limits for online communities will evolve. In the meantime, parents can employ time-tested common-sense strategies to protect their children:
Encourage youths to talk about their digital experiences and ask about what networking sites they are visiting -- and whether they've encountered any problems online. Although teenagers may demand more online privacy than younger children, they may welcome the opportunity to discuss concerns with parents.
Young people may not understand the long-term consequences of posting something online or sending digital images to someone else. It's important to help them understand that a digital "footprint" lives on forever.
Identify multiple ways to deal with cyberbullying and sexting, so that a young person can find the most comfortable way to deal with online problems. Here are some common strategies:
1. Don't send e-mails or post information online while angry.
2. Refuse to pass on insulting messages or suggestive images.
3. Log off a chat room whenever the conversation turns nasty.
4. Block a bully electronically, using the options provided by various online communities.
5. Seek an adult's help when necessary.
6. Set an example. It's not just kids who engage in cyberbullying or sexting. Although they usually won't admit it, youths look to parents and other adults for cues about how to behave in the world -- and online. Set the right tone online, and your child will notice and be inclined to follow. - Harvard Mental Health Letter
Stop Cyberbullying: www.stopcyberbullying.org
Stop Bullying: www.stopbullying.gov
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