Cyber-bullying is on the rise. And it’s a rapid one. According to recent studies, incidents of cyber-bullying have soared 351% in just two years in New York City schools. That included kids being taunted online about sexual orientation, appearance and race.
So how can we protect our kids from not just being the victim of cyber-bullies, but from being the perpetrators as well? In Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids From Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression, authors Brian Johnson and Laurie Berdahl take a close look at the impact of screen time.
Together the husband-and-wife team highlights how media has contributed to the dramatic rise in kids’ exposure to violence, meanness, manipulation, aggression, sexualization, profanity, vulgarity and drug and alcohol use. That, in turn, promotes aggressive and violent behaviors in some kids, while in others it promotes fear, anxiety and depression, all risk factors for victimization.
Johnson, a child psychologist, and Berdahl, a retired board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, don’t simply wallow in this kind of data. Rather, they focus on what parents can do to help keep their kids safe when it comes to screen time. And they do so in concrete terms, with easy-to-implement, researched-backed ideas.
1. Talk regularly with your kids about screen time in two ways. Highlight the negative aspect of too much time online, and also bring up how inappropriate content can be dangerous.
“Studies show that discussing the risks of high screen time and harmful content can help kids decide to reduce exposure because they realize the benefits.”
2. Take the time to find quality content: websites, apps and movies. Don’t assume your child will reject it.
“Children can learn from pro-social content (helping others, cooperating for a good cause, showing empathy, and seeing other people’s perspectives) and benefit from uplifting content (overcoming adversity and experiencing good things). This content has been shown to improve children’s moods, sleep, and helpful behaviors.”
3. Know what websites they are visiting. While some parents may not want to devote the time to this, Johnson and Berdahl say it’s critical to maintain a connection to their Internet browsing.
“Look through browsing history for violent or hate websites. According to research, youth who reported that many, most, or all of the websites they visited showed real people fighting, shooting, or killing were five times more likely to report engaging in seriously violent behavior compared to those reported engaging in seriously violent behavior compared to those reporting that none of the websites they visited showed these scenarios.”
4. If your child is on social media, stress the importance that they use those networks to only communicate with real friends. No messaging “friends of friends,” which is just another term for a stranger.
“Teens who electronically communicate with only real friends report less depression and fewer social problems.”
5. Recent research has shown that kids often avoid telling parents about a cyber-bullying incident for fear that mom and dad will ban access to their devices in order to keep them safe. Make sure your child knows you will not resort to this option.
“Make it clear that you won’t ban all Internet activity if they share concerning content with you—that’s a common reason that kids don’t tell adults about problems.”
Finally, Johnson and Berdahl have some excellent advice on how to create a family media plan. Warning: It involves parents getting in on the action and establishing limits for themselves as well.
1) Approach it as a time-management and life-balancing plan made out of concern for your kids’ well-being and happiness;
(2) Give your school-age kids (and older) input from the beginning
(3) Plan gradual changes over time instead of all at once
(4) Have everyone record their media diet for a week. Include your non-work-related screen time (sorry, but this will help your kids buy into the plan)
Review everyone’s electronic media diaries and set rules that everyone interprets the same way, specifying limits on time spent on which device or media, when it can be spent (such as no noneducational media before homework is done or on a certain weekday, no social media while doing homework, no screens, including cell phones, during meals, mute commercials, TV can only be on when someone is actively watching a show).
Also, specify types of shows, music, websites, and games that are or aren’t allowed, and if a child’s choice is not approved, replace it with something less harmful that he or she would probably like. Compromise when you safely can. Once you decide on rules, write them down and put them in plain view.
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