I’ve been online since the dawn of the graphical browser, and its amazing how much the internet has changed. But what’s also amazing is how much it has also stayed the same in so many ways–bullies have been online, writ large, since the days that the internet was strictly text-only. But in my day, I was already a teenager, and the internet was a somewhat rare, poorly-adopted novelty item that had few pictures and no sound (digital photos were still in their infancy, and high speed internet? LOL). It was not a place where kids these days have an incredibly large, connnected audience and an even larger varieties of ways to get themselves into trouble.
My son is too young yet to navigate the wild, wild west of the internet on his own–and make no mistake, it’s just as wild west out there as it was 21 years ago, if not more so. He’s asked me for things like access to Instagram and Google accounts (so he can comment and vote on YouTube). And I’ve had to reply: absolutely not.
But I do know this is far from the end of the subject. One day we will need to discuss these things–how to behave, what to watch out for, what to avoid, and when NOT to avoid something.
We’re still, however, negotiating the tricky path of teaching how to respond when bullies are standing face to face with him. I’m standing on moral grey, with checklists of contingencies about when to yell for help, and when to physically defend oneself. What should one do when one is fighting with words? And when should you intervene in matters that don’t involve you?
It’s a complex issue. And we are not yet ready to discuss how to handle bullying when the bullies cannot be seen or touched.
Back in April, I wrote about how my son was harassed by his friends over bringing a purple backpack to school. When I wrote about the backpack, a huge community came forward to show that the internet can be a great, supportive environment. It doesn’t have to be a hostile space. And armed with that display of support, my son has worn that backpack back to school ever since.
Between dealing with bullies in real life and the backpack experience, these are the lessons that I hope will build the best foundation for my son when we are ready to discuss his online behaviour: how it feels to be a target of such negative criticism; how one can be perceived as a bully, mean or cruel in words and not just actions; and how a united show of support can defeat bullies and lift up their victims.
I was reached out to by a small publishing company following my son’s story gone bananas on the internet–it was featured on Today.com–and the waves of photos of boys and men proudly wearing purple (for which I am profoundly grateful). She offered me a copy of a book by Galit Breen called Kindness Wins, a manual of 10 habits to teach to our children about how to act kind online.
Galit tells us that introducing our kids to the internet is no different than teaching them to walk, swim, or behave in school–something that perhaps we have forgotten given its vast, overbearing presence in our lives.
Amongst the topics are not only about how anonymity is no excuse for poor behaviour and what things should never be posted online, but also when you should stand up for your friends. And with every subject comes takeaways, suggestions on how to approach these lessons with your kids, and good examples you can show them.
In short, it’s a very orderly, well thought out approach to instructing something that we (as parents) are probably more likely to address as a trial-by-crisis concern.
And unfortunately, by then it is probably too late.
This book is a relatively short read, but an excellent one. I highly recommend that every parent pick up a copy of Kindness Wins, especially if they’ve got youngsters who are approaching their teens and tweens and are getting ready to venture out into the wild wild west on their own.
It makes the idea of tackling the subjects of internet propriety much less daunting, and hopefully helps build the relationship with your kids that if they ever have problems online, they can always come to you about them.
I’ve also got a copy of Kindness Wins to give away! Feel free to sign up to win it.