I have a new addiction. Webinars. They sound so geeky (part of the thrill) and in one hour my brain is jam-packed with new ideas and terms. My most recent one was with incredible Dr Elizabeth Englander via Common Sense Media and EdWeb.Net. Based on ‘Cyber-Bullying, Sexting and Social Media’ I learnt a range of new approaches and threats - and wanted to share them with you.
What makes these eSafety concerns so complicated?
Responsibility. Mainly as the outcomes of cyberbullying, sexting, and social media are more about emotions rather than technology itself, it is sometimes hard to know who is in charge of online safety - schools, parents or the children themselves? The internet providers? The app developers? Who knows? A big fear surrounding children and young people with online safety is that adults are unsure how to help, and who to turn to, in the first place. What do you do? Who do blame when your child is upset? Whose responsibility is it?
Growing Pains. The impact of cyberbullying or sexting also differs child to child, dependent on their support network and their resilience. Arguably we all need some “meanness” when we are growing up (tricky peers, not getting our own way and teasing), but where do we draw the line for the next generation? When does meanness move from being productive to damaging? Parents can come to a child’s defence in a bullying instance when sometimes the incident was relatively minor. Perhaps the meanness was more about teasing than the emotional destruction of character. That means parents need to review each instance and the upset/result it causes. No easy feat.
Digital Generation. Also, a huge factor in online abuse is that the older the child gets, the more their digital dealings have an impact on their lives. For example, Englander’s research shows us that at ‘elementary school’ bullying is more likely to be in person (face to face) than online. When in high school, however, it is more likely to involve cyber-bullying and the interactive action among kids. Therefore the more that children go online, the more likely they are to be bullied. The older children get, the more often bullying will be online rather than in person.
The Playground of Today. We know that wrapping children up in cotton wool is not the answer, but how can we keep them safe once they log on? As more children are using the internet as their playground, instead of the ‘outdoor’ spaces we used to when we were growing up, there needs to be some ‘social’ rules enforced surely. The issue seems to be, and the research cited by Englander reflects this, is that there are NO social rules. And the young people want there to be a few guidelines.
Education Intervention. Interestingly, social-economic status does not make a difference with these issues. It is more about how often students use computers and personal devices, and what sort of access they have. Therefore, education is key here, especially for young people with emotional/behavioural needs. We need to talk to these students so they are not vulnerable and they are aware of what might happen so they are empowered. Englander is passionate that students need to be educated in how to be preventive rather than reactionary in their approach, and I agree. After working in secondary schools for nearly 15 years, prevention is always better than reaction when it comes to bullying. The students need to know what is acceptable behaviour and what is not - the social norms or netiquette as I like to call it. But the main issues seems to be that there is no writing on the wall to guide us.
Solutions: Netiquette ‘Codes’ and Conduct
Adults Are Not Always The Experts. Let’s get real here. There is no way, as an adult, you can be an expert in every app or website that your child has, or will, encounter. The rate that new organisations and ideas are launched makes this unrealistic. Therefore, I repeat ‘You don’t have to be an expert’. However, research (including Englander’s studies) shows us that there are similarities that run across many apps/sites. This means we can create codes of practice or ‘Netiquette’ codes. For example, there are similarities that run holistically across these apps/sites. Therefore we can create ‘codes’ of practice that can apply to the online activity of young people without necessarily being an iGenius about them all. For example, you do not need to have an understanding of technology to advocate asking other people for permission to upload a photo of them, nor do you need to know about online communities to know that you stick up for your friends. Here are some more examples:
1. Be A Responsible Member of Your eCommunity. Digital behaviours can change rapidly. For example, the rate of change from text-based to image-based communications (like Instagram) has been incredible over the last four years. But what concerns me is what appears to be the next stage of eCommunities and communications: anonymous sites and promotion of ‘un-named’ users. That is, instead of having your name or an interesting avatar name (one of mine is SunShineGirl) there seems to be an explosion of sites that encourage users to be anonymous. These sites include Cloakd, Whisper, YikYak, Secret and ASKFM. With anonymity and sites/apps that encourage it, evidence illustrates that when things go “nasty”, it happens very quickly. Personally, I am not sure why you would want to be anonymous and could predict that some users would use this ‘disguise’ to play out darker behaviours that they would never do in person, but I am a cynical old teacher at heart. To a 13 year old student, I would have thought it would be exciting and exhilarating - to begin with.
So. What can you do when the inevitable occurs? If someone is being bullied anonymously, you can contact the server, block that user (although kids do not normally do this), change apps, and so on, but a more effective way is to ask students look at their support network online. Who are their friends on this site - in reality or the cyber-world - who can stick up for them and intervene. This is where group responsibility kicks in, or should, and young people need to start looking out for one another. We need them to ask their ‘friends’ to jump in and say bullying behaviour is unacceptable. We need to teach them that ‘If you are part of a community member, it is your job to help our your fellow members’. We need them to use their relationships and emotional toolkits to navigate low- level teasing.
2. Always Ask Permission. Is there a rule or code amongst young people about asking permission before you take, post, send and/or tag pictures? Students say that there are not ‘social’ rules around these activities, but they wish there were. Therefore we need to help them learn what these codes of conduct are. If you take a picture of someone, ask permission before you do anything with it. The image of another person is as much theirs as yours. Arguably more so.
In the case of ‘sexting’ (spending of a naked image), there are factors that increase inappropriate use of images. One seems to be when users considers themselves to be in a ‘private’ space (more in a minute) or with a group that encourages this behaviour (peer pressure). When substances like alcohol and drugs are involved, people may send images without permission, or even a thought as to what will happen the morning after the night before.
3. WAIT. Another increase in the risk of poor behaviours is when someone is feeling angry or frustrated. This ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to a situation can result in young people sening images or words that they would not in a more calm or reflective mood. This is where it is wise to wait 24 hours before you send a response. This can mean that the cold light of day can save you from exposing yourself or others to harm. Now… when I say 24 hours, I KNOW it might actually mean two hours but even this can make all of this difference and it is better to aim high, right?
4. Say Online As You Would In Person. Do you think people say things online that they would say in person? Children frequently say ‘no’. Emotions can become more intense in a digital environment, from happy to angry, excited to scared. Englander gave a great example: If you are upset and text 20 of your friends about something your mother has said to you, normally about 13 of your friends would then respond. The issue is that these texts are then re-read by you (again and again) and your feelings become intensified. You are priming yourself to be more upset by sending out messages online - and this is typical of digital environments. Therefore it is better to wait - and then only say what you would to another person’s face.
5. Remember Who You Are Talking To. When you are talking in the real world, you watch the speaker’s face. It’s hard not to engage in this way; we do it unconsciously. When you are not engaging face-to-face (because you are engaging online) you have an increase your ‘self-focus’. This means that you become focused on yourself - rather than taking note of the other person’s feelings and body language. Your attention is turned inward, and you (kids included) can forget that there are other people involved in the conversation. By watching themselves in the ‘FaceTime’ window, to reading their column of text first, it is easy to forget how the other person might feel as a result of ‘funny’ words or ‘that image’ that people shared.
6. Clarity is KEY. AKA. Misinterpreting. Most issues are created between students who miscommunicate and misinterpret what’s been said. If you text and say (as Englander illustrated):
I’m not mad.
I’m NOT mad!
I am not mad :7 (
I’m NOT MAD!!! :7)
Which one tells the reader that you are really mad?
Emoticons can help with this. As you cannot see or hear the other person (their tone of voice, their body language) it can be helpful to ensure what you are saying is read in the correct way :7 )
7. The Internet is NOT Private. The latest research tells us that children know that the internet is not private when asked, but they will still behave as though it is private. The contradiction is due to children being in a private space (bedroom or lounge) when they communicate with others. It ‘feels’ like it is private to them, even though they know otherwise. An example of this contradiction is shown in a survey, which found that 83% of children admitted to regretting posting when they were in their bedrooms - when they felt that it was in private. They felt as though ‘no-one would see it’.
Also, it is important to teach young people that social networks are not ‘private’. These organisations like you to believe they are and even have ‘privacy settings’, but ANYTHING you put on the internet can be copied and shared. Many 18-year-olds still believe that privacy works, when it does not. They do not seem to understand that these ‘free’ apps are paid for by sponsors and advertisers who use your data in order to make money. Children feel that even though others might have images shared, they will not. Therefore it is easier to say to young people once you post something online, it is not private and it is out there for the whole world to see.
The webinar also looked at common myths for young people and adults. These were really thought provoking and I wanted to add them here for you.
Myth 1: It is not always about teenagers. When Englander returned to her research in the webinar, she used recent studies to illustrate this point really well. When we look at younger students in USA between 2010-13, we find that the amount of smart phone ownership has increased around 50% for students in Grade 3-5. These numbers can be broken down as from 9.5% - 19% for Grade 3 students; 14.8 - 35% for Grade 4; and 30.5 - 46% for Grade 5. When you look at elementary school data, you find that those who have smart phones are more likely to be cyber-bullied (they have a personal device and are online more). Therefore students in Grade 3 are being cyber-bullied, not just teenagers.
It is also interesting that so many third and fourth graders now have their own smart phones. If you have a child in this age group who wants to start using a social network, try one like Kuddle, a company that ensures that children’s first experiences with these apps are safe and secure.
Myth 2: Adults are the major online threat. Students normally have issues more at a local level. Peers would be the main threat for them. For example (or to use Englander's example) when young people were asked with 67% felt that their peers were their main ‘threat’, 6% felt adults were and 27% said other. This shows us that most of the online abuse is from their peers, yet this is not what eSafety education focuses on.
Myth 3: That a Smart Phone is a telephone. It is not. You can make a phone call with a smart phone, but they are more often used for other forms of communication. Maybe we need to call them personal computers or personal devices instead to illustrate what you can do with them..?
Myth 4: Sexting is always a problem. Research says no. A lot of the time it is done for fun. It isn’t associated with pathological tendencies like depression and low self-esteem. It is usually not prosecuted in the USA. BUT it is not necessarily harmless or healthy (also see Englander's feature in The Washington Post here to be clear). It can be emotionally troubling. Intervention needs to take place around middle school, before Year 8/9. Most students do not sext as an adolescent (only 10-15% of young people say they are sexting).
But…What Makes It A Problem?
Peer Pressure. So. Evidence shows that from 9th Grade, peer pressure starts to get more serious. Strangely, despite the media hype around body image (pressure around weight and physical appearance), girls seem get involved in peer pressure more than boys (once you get to Year 11).
Being pressured/coerced into sexting is the real issue. Her research revealed the following:
Dating Violence. Sexting now also has clear links with dating violence (for both boys and girls) as those who sexted were likely to have violent relationships. Also those who started texting before Year 10 in the UK/ High School were more likely to have been pressured into ‘sexting’, than those who began sexting once in High School/ Year 10-12. These risks for adolescents illustrate the need for early intervention in schools and at home. We need to be speaking with students before High School age/ KS4.
Age rather than Self Esteem. Surprisingly, self esteem is not the key here. It is more likely to be the younger students or those with relationship struggles, those who give into pressure, to sext. For example, an older boy will say to an 8th grade student, “I will go out with you if you send me a picture of you first.” They then do. They sext. The boy then mocks them and doesn’t go out with them. Or it sets up a relationship based on sexual images and with a dominant partner (linking to high dating violence levels).
Mixed Messages from Adults. This is really thought provoking. Issues here include that it is illegal to sext or discuss the sharing of images. Although this is true technically, it is not the reality. Or so students will see it. Hear me out. If a policeman says to a school crowd full of 16 year olds, “It is illegal to share these images or engage in sexting” the teenage audience will think “Well, that did not happen to me! Or to my friend. I’m not sure you really know what you are talking about Mr. Policeman”. The result of this is that teenagers then do not listen. Their friend has not been put in jail for it - in fact she is the only other person that knows about sexting outside of the couple. She has done it and so has he. No one has called the police!
Therefore… our messages are not sinking in. What we say does not mirror the children’s reality.
“Munching” or Digital Munchausen
These terms refer to cyber-bullying. When kids go online and create a second persona for themselves, they have the persona “cyber-bully” themselves. They then show this evidence of bad behavior to adults. You think it would be rare but it happens to about 15% of the young people (those who admitted it to Dr. Englander’s study). The number one reason for this behavior is that children “wanted someone to worry about them”. When questioned if it worked, only 16% said it did and they felt better as a result. However, another 42% said it worked, but it did not make them feel better.
Those who did engaged in “munching” are normally one of two types. The ‘dabblers’ who try it once (due to a one-off crisis), and the ‘regulars’ who have social problems at multiple levels, with friends, family and dating partners.
Catfishing is when a kid makes up an online presence for a boyfriend or girlfriend. This means he or she creates a life story on your Facebook, for example, or uses images of models instead of themself. It seems more mainstream in the USA than the UK. Here is an article about it.
“Vamping”. This is for those children who stay up at night and go online. Normally their parents are completely unaware. Researchers found that 71% of boys, and 80% of girls, admitted that they ‘vamped’ 1-2 hours a night at least. Why? They like connecting with one another when their parents were asleep. Dr. Englander discussed the reasons why this practice is common, and it makes sense. Many young people have scheduled timetables of homework and activities. They are surrounded by adults and do not have time to themselves. ‘Vamping’ can be a stress relief when there are no adults or activity, which shows us that kids need downtime away from adults.
In conclusion, I hope this helps you and your eSafety adventure. Here are a few links for further reading - please do visit Englander's sites - such an inspiration and we hope that you might see some collaborative work with TechnoTeachers and her soon!
If you have any other sites or apps you would recommend, we would love to hear from you. Or if you would like TechnoTeachers to have a TechnoDiaolgue with you, your school, or your parents, please contact us.
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