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Cyber chat

Large numbers of children experience online bullying and worse. What can they - and their parents - do? By Stephanie Cottam

According to the NSPCC last year, 1 in 5 children, aged between 11 and 16, experienced some form of negative online experience in the form of bullying, trolling, cyber-stalking,intimidation or unwanted sexual advances.

Bullying photoYou can’t have failed to see the tragic news articles about teenagers like 14 year old Hannah Smith who had been using Ask.fm or 17 year old Daniel Perry who used Skype, both of whom committed suicide in August following online abuse and threats of being blackmailed. But these are only two stories among the thousands of experiences people are encountering, and the fact is that girls are twice as likely to be targeted online than boys..

Unlike the physical bullying in the schoolyard, online tactics are more vicious, more explicit, more damaging, because the abuser can often hide behind the mask of anonymity. Many school children who have had a negative experience have no idea who is behind the words being thrown at them. In this instance the rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” has become extinct. Words do hurt. Hurt to the point of thinking the only way to escape them is to end life itself, rather than face it any longer. Unlike physical bullying, there is no way to avoid the bully, and no way to distance yourself from the attack, such is the nature of social media.

There have been instances where an argument in school has spilled over onto the internet: one girl found that when she logged on at home, a whole page had been dedicated to the hatred of her following a fall-out in school. The girls in her year posting messages of hate on this page, focussing on how they wished she was dead. No-one should ever have to experience this, or read hateful, hurtful things about themselves.

In the same vein, as a child of God, you should not be involved in this kind of cyber bullying against other girls (or boys) in your school or community. There are many Christians who chose to use their online presence to be a witness of Jesus and His ways, rather than giving into the pressure of their peers to behave a certain way online. You are responsible for how you behave in the online world, just as you are responsible for how you behave in the physical world.

So how can you protect yourself?
  • You probably won’t like this, but you have to allow your parents into your social network! God placed you under their care for a reason, and it is in trying to hide our lives from them that we give access to cyber bullies. At the end of the day, as we make our way in life, trying to work out who we are, we will start to pull away from our parents rules. But this is when the cyber enemy can take control of you; they thrive on secrecy and anonymity. Let your parents in on what is happening - they may know whether what you are the victim of will require police involvement.
  • It’s OK to block someone who is being abusive towards you - even if it is someone you thought was a friend. You don’t have to explain your actions to them. Once someone has been blocked, you will not see anything they post - and they cannot post on your profile or to your personal inbox. Neither will you see other people’s interaction with them.
  • Don’t succumb to the pressure to post messages of negativity, hatred or abuse against any other person. Use your social media presence to be an encouragement - even when you fall out with someone personally. Not only can you affect the way your peers see you, but you can affect the future for yourself. Most employers today are aware of the social media presence of prospective employers, and will check through your profile. What do you want them to find?
  • Remember what the Word of God says about keeping yourself pure, blameless, and using your words to bring life to others, not death. You may not actually verbalise the words you type into your computer / mobile, but the impact your words have are just as if you had spoken them. And Jesus said we will all have to give an account of what we say, Matthew 12:36-37: “And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak.The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you”.
  • Finally, find other things to do which take you away from the computer! Life is about experiences. Create some memories which you will treasure, rather than shrink away in fear from. Join clubs - sports, art, drama, dance, writing etc... Whatever you enjoy doing! Get together with other young people in Church and work out how you can be in today’s world - form a band, study the Bible, write a play and ask if you can get some help from the Youth leader to show it. Jesus gave you new life to life in abundance, not to be the victim of a computer. Live out the dreams and visions He laces within you.

Parents, how can you protect your children online?
  • Ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom!!! Knowing how to parent in our current cultural climate has no textbook answer, and you are constantly learning all the time. The generation growing up now are being exposed to things which other generations have never had to deal with. This is a scary world for them, and they will need to know you are on their side as they navigate from childhood to adulthood. This is especially important if you think you may need to involve the police. Keep the messages, take screenshots - as the police will need to have a full picture of what your child has experienced.
  • Create open communication between you and your children. You may not agree with online social networks, but in the current society, there is little we can do to escape the pressure children face to have an online presence, in order to be accepted and kept informed of their peers... after all, most teenagers have an innate desire to be liked and “one of the crowd”. Be open with them about your fears, and help them to protect themselves on the internet.
  • It’s important for any teenager to know they are safe enough with you to be able to approach you about any issue they have on their mind. As Christians, being open to pray through these issues will help in the long run, in spite of your own fears for their safety.
  • Check the settings on your child’s profile - can any random stranger post a message to your child, or can it only come from someone in their friend list? Being involved in protecting your child and showing them how to keep themselves safe shows that you care enough to be informed. They don’t know all the answers, and will need your help to navigate through the online systems of protection. You can also look into purchasing or downloading an online monitor to observe the interactions your children are having. Talk to them about it, about what it does and why you have decided to install such software.
  • Finally, if you have an online profile yourself... be an example of what it means to be a Godly witness, and user of the internet... children are much more aware of what you are doing than you think they are. If they see you posting messages of hate, abuse or anger, they’re more likely to imitate you than to do as you say! Is it time for you to check through your online profile and interactions??

Stephanie Cottam writes and edits a teenage girls magazine for Christian teens, called SHINE, where this article first appeared. SHINE Magazine is published and distributed to around 20,000-25,000 Christian teens through the Methodist Recorder.

Picture: RGB Stock
Steph Cottam, 04/10/2013
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