Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.
The story has been circulating through the Chicago grapevine: a 15-year-old student at one of the city’s high schools hung himself in January. The family claims that relentless bullying, much of it through text messages, pushed their son to this horrifying outcome. They have filed suit against the school and a host of parents of the classmates who participated in the bullying. Amid the many texts the boy received was one that read: Go kill yourself.
It’s a terrifying thought for parents, the harm that cruel words from the peer group can inflict on a son or daughter through social media or texting. Surveys show that ninety percent of teens ages 13-17 have used social media, and 51% report visiting a social media site at least daily.i Few teens exist outside the texting culture, with studies reporting that they send an average of 60 text messages each day.ii Social media and texting have become vehicles where teen life is echoed and amplified in ways good and bad.
It is well recognized that youth and adults both feel freer to express in anonymous social media words and ideas they might never express if their identity were known. This may be the singular feature that lubricates a teen’s willingness to offer mean-spirited and cruel comments on these platforms. In one survey, many teens reported that they didn’t feel like their customary selves when engaged with social media, and they observed that classmates online often act differently from how they act in person.
When it comes to texting, it’s the group text chain that makes it particularly easy for some teens to hurl invective toward others — the power of peer influence and the wish to be seen as “one of the gang.” The Go kill yourself message was part of a group text thread that built momentum as one classmate after another stoked the flames.
While there’s no easy remedy to some of social media’s toxic by-products, parents can play a role in mitigating the harmful potential of their children’s online behavior. What’s important are conversations with your children — ongoing dialogue rather than a one-time discussion — about what it means to be a good digital citizen. Such conversations should not be seen as opportunities to lecture your kids so much as put important topics on the table for all points of view to be heard. You’re planting seeds for thought, an approach more likely to reach them versus delivering a lecture from on high. Conversations can include:
• Perspective-taking: Invite your kids to imagine what it feels like to be on the receiving end of cruel words. Watch one father use this approach in the Encouraging Empathy short video in our Talking to Kids You Love collection.
• Discuss the value of and encourage your children to stand up for others when they witness cyberbullying or unkind words. "Imagine what it would mean to you if one or more classmates came to your support if you were targeted.”
• Educate your kids about the power of group dynamics — how easily we can be influenced by a group and accidentally become a cyberbully ourselves. Discuss the pressures kids feel to fit in or look cool in the eyes of classmates.
• Remind your kids that postings and texts can live forever, often with no way to undo them. Imagine together situations where, in the future, this can come back to haunt them.
In one survey, 86% of teens reported receiving advice from parents about responsible and safe internet use, with over 90% reporting that the advice was good. Don’t be afraid to bring your voice to this important topic.