Don’t Blame the (KiK) Messenger – What the REAL conversation needs to be about Cyber Bullying

There was an extremely sad story in the New York Times about a 12 year-old girl in Florida who committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied both on and off-line.  It’s unfortunately an all too familiar heartbreaking story involving mean girls, cyberbullying, school officials who didn’t really know how to intervene, and a parent who did every thing she could to prevent this from happening.  And unfortunately the reporter took an equally well-tread path in blaming the use of apps as a catalyst for the suicide.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think social media and mobile tech can amplify the effects of cyberbullying, and make it harder and harder for kids to escape bullying.  Whereas kids used to be able to come home, or go to an after school activity, and leave the school bullies behind, social media photos and texts follow a kid from place to place.  Even changing schools has less positive impact since so much bullying can live right in the palm of a kid’s hand via their smart phone or iPod Touch.   BUT there are key points missing from the reporting of this story, and in my opinion blaming the apps, specifically KiK Messenger and ask.fm, and the technology is diverting us from the real issues.

First of all, there was no mention in this article that at 12 years-old it was not legal for this girl to have a KiK messenger and ask.fm account.  That is because of COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) which prohibits companies from collecting personal information about kids under 13 without express verifiable parental consent.  Most companies don’t want to deal with that legal headache – and they want to collect as much info as possible about their users – so they are NOT COPPA-compliant.  But of course kids know how to easily lie to get on these social media apps.  All you have to do is scroll down and select the right birth year.  Most parents don’t even know that Instagram and these other social media apps aren’t allowed for kids under 13.  They’ve been so focused on Facebook as some boogeyman of the web that they haven’t noticed that kids are on apps – and Facebook is just not one of them. Though this young girl also had a Facebook page that was shut down.  So she was very immersed in social media – and that is very common.

Parents who think that shutting down a Facebook page is going to be enough, or commenters who said that kids just shouldn’t have smart phones and that would solve the problem,  are massively missing the point.  THIS is our kids’ world.  They are online.  They might not have a smart phone, but they may have an iPod Touch or a tablet.  Being connected is not just about a phone.  And in the end what we are left with is a generation that needs to have the tools to manage social media responsibly and safely.

And that takes me to the next big omission – where are the parents of the girls using these apps and social media as weapons?

At the core of this issue is the freedom that kids (and adults) feel to be outrageously cruel online because hiding behind the screen has a way of emboldening people to bring out their worst.  And tweens and teens who are already in a narcissistic haze of hormones and myopia are particularly susceptible to pushing these boundaries via social media (and in real life too.)  That doesn’t mean we should ban social media, it means there has to be real discussion about how to use it. There needs to be consequences for the bad behavior online – and not arrests after something horrible happens – but parents who are monitoring their children’s online behavior not just for being bullied but for being the bully too.

I’ve written extensively about how parents can and should monitor their kids’ online and social media use, and as the co-founder of KidzVuz – a site made expressly for kids under 13 – I see every day the kind of behavior that kids try to get away with and the information they try to put out there.  They desperately want to connect and share.  We give them a safe space to do that, but the truth is they see the huge popularity of Instagram and YouTube and it’s beyond exciting to them.  They don’t get that those sites aren’t going to moderate for inappropriate content or bullying, they are on their own.

There are so many emotional and maturity level reasons they shouldn’t be on these apps and sites in the first place, but they are – and at 13 they are allowed to be legally.  A 13 year-old isn’t exactly the epitome of a careful, thoughtful person.  So even if you are shutting your kids out of social media until they are “legally” allowed to be there, they will have NO idea of what to do or what the ramifications of their behavior will be when they turn 13, unless you teach them.

The most important take-away parents must learn is not to just monitor but to participate.  Have the same social media apps as your kid, connect your iTunes account, friend them on everything, and most of all if your kid is the bully shut THEIR account down.  Take away THEIR phone!  Most of all, don’t be afraid to parent.  You would never say you don’t want to know the friends your child hangs out with everyday or going to parties with, but parents turn a blind eye to the “friends” online all the time.  There is no distinction between the online and offline world for kids – and parents need to respect and understand that in order to parent Generation Z.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Blame the (KiK) Messenger – What the REAL conversation needs to be about Cyber Bullying

  1. Great post! Ask.fm is as dangerous as dangerous can be. There was a big cyberbullying issue last year in my daughter’s school – and ask.fm was at the root of it…mainly bc it’s anonymous. Any parent who’s child has such an account should absolutely disable it now.

    • ask.fm seems to be the conduit for sooo much bullying and mean girl behavior. Can’t imagine that’s what the developers thought it would be used for! It’s supposed to be a good thing to ask and get crowd sourced answers! UGH!

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  3. Rebecca,
    Thank you so much for this post. It is encouraging to have someone finally address the correct issues around this topic! So many parents aren’t aware of COPPA and don’t monitor what apps and social sites their kids are on. These are topics we educate parents on in our Saving Face for Parents of Tweens Program; http://haytheresocialmedia.com/savingface/
    One thing I always tell parents and educators is kids may be tech savvy, but that doesn’t make them socially savvy or emotionally mature enough to handle the issues they may face online.
    Banning kids from tech and social media isn’t realistic either. A better answer is to educate kids on becoming good digital citizens!
    In our Saving Face program we share appropriate, kid friendly sites that are COPPA compliant. (KidzVuz being one of them)
    Thank you for tackling this difficult topic! We will keep beating the drum at Saving Face!
    Sheri Watkins
    Social Media Manager | Hay There Social Media
    Co-Creator Saving Face for Parents of Tweens™
    swatkins@haytheresocialmedia.com

    • Totally agree Sheri! There are so many resources out there for parents, but I think they are really overwhelmed and sometimes these stories just stoke the fear. Parents need to feel empowered,as do the kids, but instead many feel hopeless because of headlines like the one in the NY Times.

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  5. Someone is impersonating my daughter, using her name and picture. Making sexual videos and saying it is her without a face showing. She does not even have a Kik acct. Her friends are telling her about the rumors and people from her old school are getting these. Anyone have advice? I have contacted the company. Next it will be the police and my lawyer. I have a 14 year old girl, who is hysterical and does not understand why anyone would do this to her. How can you explain something like this? My concern, how do you stop it????

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