Last week readers submitted numerous questions about cyberbullying to our expert, Elizabeth K. Englander, a professor of psychology and the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College, which provides antibullying and antiviolence training programs and resources to schools and families. In the coming week, we’ll offer more answers to selected questions about bullying.
How can I best prepare my middle school daughter and myself for the possibility of cyberbullying in the coming years? I am wondering what the advice would be on when children should be allowed use of cellphones or access to social networking sites, since it seems to the norm for social interaction these days. — K.M.
It’s a great idea to think about cyberbullying before it happens. During these discussions, what should you say? Ask your children about cyberbullying. Ask them what they’ve heard about it and if they know anything about it or any kids it has happened to.
Tell them what you know and discuss with them what the family rules should be about cyber-related behaviors. Ask them how they might avoid cyberbullying and, if it does happen, how they should react. Our Web site, at www.MARCcenter.org, has free guides that can help you with this discussion with your children.
One more point I feel compelled to bring up. By my calculation, your daughter is probably 11 years old. You may not be aware of this, but the minimum age for a Facebook profile and account is 14. Although I’m fully aware that some children falsify their ages to get onto Facebook, I do think that permitting children to give a fake age emphasizes to them that they needn’t bother following all the rules. That’s an approach that may, in the long run, backfire upon well-meaning parents who themselves need to put rules in place.
My own approach with my children is to tell them that they may not have a Facebook account until they are following all the rules, including not lying about their age. (It’s often argued back to them that children will simply set up an account on the sly, and this may happen. But I think that doing something on the sly, against your parents’ rules, feels very different then openly breaking the rules with your parents’ consent. And, ultimately, which values do you want them to learn?)
When should children be allowed the use of cellphones or access to social networking sites? I see the need to educate children (and probably adults, too,) on the proper way to conduct themselves in a virtual environment, but should schools have that responsibility to regulate the environment? — P.M.
It is important to note that there’s a difference between carrying a cellphone to enable phone calls to Mom and Dad, and carrying what is in reality a miniature computer — a device that can surf the Web, post on Web sites and send and receive text messages and photos freely. Many parents monitor what their children do online yet turn around and give their child an Internet-enabled cellphone with absolutely no education, guidance, rules or monitoring whatsoever. We tend to think of these devices as “telephones” — used to make voice calls — but our research has shown that more than half of teenagers use these devices to make voice calls only 20 percent of the time or less.
In answer to the question about whether children should be allowed to have access to cellphones: the best route is probably to have lots of discussion and education. Talk with your kids about what kinds of cyberbullying they may have witnessed between cellphone users, and how they might personally avoid or respond to such problems. Assure your child that you know about the problems that can arise with cellphones and that you absolutely expect your child to respect others online — including their cellphone use.
Cellphones, paid for by Mom and Dad, are a privilege, not a right. Because all of our kids will have to use electronic devices throughout their lives, education, experience and talking about these problems is probably the only long-term solution to electronic misbehavior.
To learn more about schools and cyberbullying, read “Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray.” And check back next week for more answers from Dr. Englander.