In 2006, a 14-year-old girl named Megan Meier took her own life as the direct result of what we now call “cyber-bullying”. Her mother was aware of her Internet activity and had taken realistic and active precautions to protect her. Despite her best efforts, however, a neighbor girl and her mother were able to relentlessly attack Megan, tear her down, and completely break her will to live. This tragic story resulted in the law known as “Megan’s Law”, which has done a great deal to aid prosecution of criminal Internet activity. But her story also poses a more difficult question for parents: How can you protect your children in this new era?
Back when we were kids, bullying didn’t follow you home. Predators and bullies had to pursue their nefarious plans on foot in the real world. We knew how to combat these kinds of threats, where authority figures in schools could protect victims of bullying and police could easily track the movements of stalkers or pedophiles. The rapid expansion of social media and the Internet has done wonders for information sharing, networking, and socializing, but it’s also ushered in a host of new threats. Combine these threats with the pressures and shifting terrain of the teenage years and you’ve got an incredible challenge on your hands as a parent. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective ways you can keep your teenagers safe without strangling their social life or completely eradicating their trust in you.
- Open Communication – The first step in keeping your kids safe online while preserving your relationship with them is to establish an open, honest line of communication with them. Sit them down and explain the dangers of the Internet. Meet them at their level with this conversation. You don’t need to tell an 8-year-old about Megan Meier’s suicide, for example, but do your best to appropriately convey how serious the Internet is and how real the threats are. This will lay groundwork and give context for the rules and guidelines you put in place for their safety so your teenager doesn’t feel like you’re smothering or “spying” on them. It also lets your children know that you’re there to listen without judgment if they come across anything that worries them.
- Talk To Parents and Friends – The National Crime Prevention Council reports that the majority of bullying, online hate, and intimidation comes from people your child knows in person. By establishing connections with your teen’s friends and their parents, you can create a dialogue and a community to help keep your teenager safe online. You can also discuss the rules you have for your teenager with other parents and hear what they’re doing. This creates a circle of accountability where you are no longer the only person helping keep an eye on your teenager’s activity.
- Report Anything Suspicious or Threatening Immediately – Thankfully, we’ll come a long way since Megan Meier, and there are laws and protocols in place to protect young people on the Internet. If your teenager receives anything threatening or worrisome, immediately reach out to local law enforcement and your local Internet provider. You might worry that you’re overreacting, but the adage “better safe than sorry” very much applies here. Bullying and hate on the Internet can escalate extremely quickly and the consequences can be drastic.
- Parental Control – Parental control encompasses a number of things, including apps, Internet tools, and rules you place in your home. The first step is to create administrator permissions and passwords to which only you and your spouse have access. This can help protect your teenager from dangerous or inappropriate sites. Next, create rules in your home regarding your teen’s Internet usage. Establish set hours for them to be online and require them to use the Internet in a common room in your home. Some parents have found it helpful to have complete access to their teenager’s social accounts, as well, but it’s important to remember that you’re walking a fine line here. If you over-step, you run the danger of pushing your teenager away or into rebellion mode, where they will be more likely to sneak around and keep things from you. Above all, you want to make sure that your teenager feels comfortable being honest with you and that they can come to you if anything dangerous happens, even if it happened while they were breaking a rule.
- Make the Internet a Family Thing – A lot of parents have found it helpful to use the Internet with their teenagers from time to time. Share funny videos you’ve found with your teenager or go shopping online with them. This shows them that you don’t have an irrational hatred or fear of the Internet, but instead want to share its positive side with them.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the Internet is not a “bad” thing. While it has its dangers, there are a ton of great uses for the Internet and, as a parent, it’s your job to direct your teenagers to using it properly. Keep communication open, establish firm, common-sense rules, and work with your teen to help them stay safe out there. Megan Meier’s story is a tragic one, but it doesn’t have to be repeated if we all work together to keep the Internet safe.