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I follow a couple of my teenage cousins on Instagram. Sometimes, in between the likes and the proclamations of BFFAEAE (that’s best friends forever and ever and ever, for those not fluent in teen speak), will be a comment like “you’re such a slut, :)!” Yes, “slut” and a smiley face, in the same sentence. I’ve seen guys make sexual comments to a 15-year-old, to which she’ll respond “ew, stop!” And whether it’s intended as a joke—like that “slut” comment, I think?—or as an advance or threat, it’s cyberbullying.
A report released Wednesday by the Pew Research Internet Project (their first devoted to cyberbullying) found that young adults aged 18-29 experience online harassment more than any other group. In fact, among adults aged 18-24, 70% have been the target of online harassment. According to the report, 60 percent of Internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names.
And while there’s no doubt that there are some mean kids out there with less-than-good intentions, oftentimes young adults don’t realize that the comments they’re posting aren’t ok. “Teens admit to us that they’ve cyberbullied, but say that when they posted, they meant it as a joke,” Dr. Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told Yahoo Parenting. “They don’t always realize that sarcasm doesn’t work very well over electronic avenues.”
Groups like Stop Bullying and Connect Safely have long focused on teaching online safety, and now the social media sites themselves are joining the fight. In a profile in The New York Times, Arturo Bejar, director of engineering for the Facebook Protect and Care team, explains his efforts to teach respectful behavior to the site’s 1.3 billion users. He agrees that much of the bullying is unintentional. “The way our brains work, we have evolved to understand each other by tone of voice or seeing facial expressions, but that gets lost through the devices we use to communicate,” he says.
But the real work of teaching appropriate online behavior starts at home. Use these tips to help your children navigate social media respectfully, and to ensure (as best you can) that they don’t become a cyberbully.
Know what they’re doing online.
“Parents need to monitor their children’s accounts and set appropriate safety settings,” Dr. Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Many adolescents are too young to be navigating independently in this space.” Parent should assess their child’s emotional development, Brackett says, to see if they can manage their emotions online.
Create norms about what is or is not appropriate to say or share.
Venting or complaining online should be a no-no, as should sarcasm. “‘Nice sweater’ can mean that literally, or be an insult,” Dr. Brackett says. Figuring out which is tricky – so best not to post it at all. And remind your kids to refrain from responding to a comment or post when they’re charged up.
Model respectful online behavior.
If you’re sitting down to comment on a post or respond to a photo, have your child watch. Explain why you’re using certain words, and also why you’re not saying certain things. “Show them that you can critique an article, or have a dialogue, but that you don’t attack a poster personally or threaten them,” Patchin says. This will teach your children how to engage online, but also that you need to consider every comment. “Regularly remind your kids of the importance of pausing before you post.”
Use high-profile examples as a learning tool.
Social media interactions often make headlines, so think of these as teachable moments, Patchin suggests. “Ask your kids, ‘what went wrong here? What could you have done differently in this situation?”
Have your kids put themselves in the shoes of the person they’re responding to online, whether it’s a wall post or an Instagram photo or a tweet. “Remind them to think about how they are making others feel,” suggests Brackett. “Is what you are writing going to make the person feel disrespected? Ask, ‘how can we craft messages to share our feelings without making things worse?’”