Monday, December 13, 2010

Time to Talk

About four years ago, I was flipping channels and ended up watching a documentary on cyber-bullying which has been one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen on television. Like so much of what we read about in the news, it’s something I wish I could un-know, because the thought of something so awful happening to my kids literally keeps me up at night. But unlike so many things that happen to us and the people we love, like disease and accidents and misfortune, bullying is something that we, as parents, can absolutely do something about, if we’re informed. The same goes for teen dating abuse and domestic violence – these aren’t things we are powerless against, once we learn a little about them.

Which is why I gladly accepted the invitation to the “Its Time to Talk” Conference last Wednesday, sponsored by Liz Claiborne. Since I attended last year, I knew I’d hear a lot of demoralizing, heartbreaking stuff about dating abuse and domestic violence, which would cost me a few night’s sleep and probably give me more gray hairs that I can afford. But I also knew forewarned is forearmed. And hey, not only do I have myself and my own small-fries to think of, I have you, dear readers, to watch out for too. Now, I know most of you have young kids at home and it seems like you’re decades away from having to worry about this stuff, but the hard truth is, what we do now is important in equipping our kids to deal with these issues later on. If you wait to discuss digital ethics and what a healthy relationship is until you think your kid’s old enough, in the tween years, you’re already playing a dangerous game of catch-up. So here’s what you need to know right now:

Digital devices are powerful, and you need to prepare kids to use them:

The time to broach the fundamentals of digital stewardship is the first time you give your child a cell phone, or a computer, or any kind of electronic device, says Dede Bartlett, founding Chair of National Domestic Violence Hotline Advisory Board. In addition to explaining how you dial numbers and send texts, says Bartlett, you have to go over what the rules of engagement are going to be. The rules that you’ll enforce will depend on your family, but the important thing is that you have rules, that you discuss a strategy for using the devices, and that you do not just hand over something as powerful as a cell phone or a Facebook account without fully discussing first what the implications of use are and that what happens online COUNTS. We need to teach kids that there are people with feelings on the other end of those screen names and that they must treat people online just as we would in person. Bartlett recommends instituting a curfew where all devices are collected at 10pm and held until the next morning. Another expert I heard from advised that before giving permission for your kids to join social media like Facebook, you come to an agreement on how you’ll be able to check in with the page and make sure they’re staying safe and being safe to others. Bottom line: these devices are powerful tools but they can also be used as weapons and the onus is on us to make the distinction clear.

Don’t overlook the power of the bystander:

When it comes to bullying, we tend to think of there being two parties involved: the bully and the bullied. But in the majority of cases, bullying doesn’t happen if bystanders are mobilized, and this is as true in the cafeteria or at recess as on Facebook or on a chat board. Of course, we’ve all been young and we know its not easy to stand up for the kid who’s getting his butt kicked: most of us in the tween and teen years are just trying to get by without attracting too much attention, trying to stay under the radar so we don’t become targets ourselves. But not only it is critical for us to teach our kids to be advocates for others, its also not as hard as it used to be in many ways. And that’s because . . . .

There are easy ways to stamp out bullying, when it happens digitally

We have to understand that the kind of bullying which happens today is not the type we remember from our own childhoods. When we were kids, you got bullied at school or on the way home, or when you went out with your friends, but when you were home, you had a break. There was an escape, even if brief. Today, though, it’s a different story, says Bartlett: “Because of technology, bullying is 24/ 7,” she explains, “because of technology, it is instantaneous, because of technology, it is permanent, because of technology, it is anonymous. Today, there is no refuge. And this terrible specter of teen and tween suicides that we’ve seen should scare the hell out of every single parent in the US.”

OK, now that I’ve terrified you, let me hasten to add this: even though technology has helped to make bullying and dating abuse so pernicious, in some ways it has made it easier to stop, too. Because so much of it happens anonymously, that means it is not only easier to participate in it, its easier NOT TO. So we need to teach our kids that if they get an email which is intended to embarrass, ridicule or deride someone, that they have a responsibility to stop it in its tracks and that is as easy as hitting “delete” rather than “forward.” It seems like nothing at all, but it is everything, because if we help create a culture where shaming and embarrassing other people isn’t that cool or funny or interesting, many of the “pranks” and the “wouldn’t-it-be-funny-if"s just wouldn’t get started. That’s the first step.

Accept the reality that kids start dating young:

It may be difficult to accept the idea that a 13 year-old could be in am abusive relationship because it seems insane to imagine a 13 year-old in a dating relationship at all. When I think of my daughter having what I can only bring myself to describe as “relations” at the age of 12 or 13, the thought it so terrifying, it does seem easier just to choose denial. Unfortunately, this kind of willful oblivion has serious consequences for our kids. Melissa Kaufmann, training coordinator for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and National Teen Dating abuse hotline, says kids as young as 13 contact their hotline (they offer not only a phone line but a chat line, which she says really allows the younger teens to feel comfortable broaching the subject). Kaufmann also explained that when she started the helpline, she thought it would involve a lot of awareness-raising for the kids, sort of helping them to understand that abuse was something that could happen to them, but what she found was that the situations the helpline was getting calls about were just as dangerous and violent as what a 34 year old mother of two goes through with an abusive husband. So first thing is accepting what it means to be a 14 year-old today, and then, taking this experience seriously, because as Kaufmann explained, abusive relationships for people under 18 can prove even more difficult to tackle since teens under 18 don’t have the same access to services that an adult would, in terms of shelters and getting protective order issued. Really young kids are getting into really serious situations and we can’t help them unless we first bring ourselves to see what’s happening.

If you have young children at home, here are some things you can do now to help protect them from teen dating abuse, domestic violence and digital abuse:

· Really prove to them that they can talk to you about anything, and you’ll listen

· Teach them to respect others and themselves

· Model and discuss what a healthy relationships looks like

· Prepare them to enter the digital world and insist on transparency, so you have access without violating trust

There is tons more information on the subject, and if you want to learn more, go to Love is Not Abuse.

*I wrote this post after attending an informational media event on behalf of Liz Claiborne and Mom Central Consulting and received a gift bag and gift card as a thank you for taking the time to participate.