Whenever parents gather, be it by the pool soaking up the last moments of summer or at the salon waiting for back-to-school haircuts, conversations often turn to the issue of cyber bullying.
The tragic stories of Amanda Todd here in B.C. and Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia, both of whom committed suicide after extreme online bullying, struck fear in parents across the country.
Yet according to a recent survey by research group Leger and undertaken on behalf of Primus Telecommunications Canada, there is a disconnect between parental concern over cyber bullying and their understanding of actions to prevent it.
Forty-four per cent of surveyed B.C parents, who had at least one child between eight and 16-years-old, worried their child was a cyber bully.
UBC professor Shelley Hymel, an expert on bullying, said with online bullying as opposed to in person bullying, figuring out who is the victim and who is the perpetrator can be tricky.
“With cyber bullying, everybody thinks they are responding to something somebody else said originally,” she said. “So it is very difficult to figure out who started it.”
Ninety-five per cent of the 102 B.C. parents in the Protecting Canadian Families Online survey felt their child would come to them about cyber bullying, but experts say that’s not the reality.
“Parents threaten to take away their phones so that is one of the biggest reasons they don’t talk to us,” said Hymel.
While the research is still not definitive about what actually works to prevent online trouble, there are early clues that monitoring online activity can be successful in helping to prevent and deal with it.
Hymel said parents should start monitoring children’s activity online as soon as a child is given access to technology, so that by the teen years, the child has accepted the monitoring as normal.
Parents should also be talking to their children early and often about the permanence of online posts, whether on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, and how to respond to or block negative commenters on these sites.
In spite of their concerns, parents don’t seem to be talking to their kids about online dangers much at all.
The survey showed by the time their child was eight-years-old, only 33 per cent of B.C. parents had even begun talking to their child about online bullies, even though 70 per cent had talked about traditional forms of bullying, (for example, physical aggression on the playground).
If kids don’t have guidance, they can make big, if sometimes innocent, errors in judgment online that can then lead to cyber bullying.
Hymel recalled an 11-year-old girl who put what the police considered pornographic material of herself online. When asked why she did it, the girl said the medication she was taking made her gain weight and feel ugly, so she posted the pictures to see if others thought she was pretty.
The girl had no idea the danger she had put herself in.
Wendy Craig, co-director of PrevNet, a Canadian cyber bullying awareness organization, agrees online bullying won’t end unless parents start talking to their kids.
“I have a colleague who says giving a child a cellphone is like giving them free tickets to Las Vegas for the weekend,” she said. “We need to really think about what we are giving over to kids and are they prepared.”
Craig said simply making a routine of spending time with children each day will create opportunities to talk.
“Four dinners a week, with your family, protects you and buffers the effect of being cyber victimized,” she said. “Because you are connecting, you are having intimacy, you are role modelling, you are problem solving.”