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Go Ask Mom

3 things tweens, teens should do when they see bullying, threats on social media

Posted September 1
Updated September 6

It's only the first week of school, but, already, two Wake County high schools have experienced separate social media threats.

On Wednesday, a 17-year-old Garner Magnet High School student was arrested and charged with making an online threat that prompted elevated security at the school. He made posts to Snapchat that showed a gun, used threatening language and made reference to the high school and students there. He now faces as much as 39 months in prison.

And, on Thursday, officials heightened security at Apex Friendship High School after a hoax threat circulated on social media.

By Thursday afternoon, Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill, in a statement, urged parents to talk to their kids about social media and follow their accounts.

"Parents and guardians, please know and share with your students that we take all these threats seriously and investigate fully," he wrote. "Not only are consequences delivered by the schools, but where feasible law enforcement, at our urging, will seek to prosecute."

Indeed, this week's events provide plenty of teachable moments for parents who are looking for ways to broach the topics of social media and cyberbullying. But, what's the best way to talk about these subjects beyond just telling kids not to get caught up in them?

Laura Tierney, founder of the Triangle-based The Social Institute, has some answers. Tierney, who has led social media strategy for national and international brands, now works with schools, parents and leaders, teaching students positive ways to handle what's become one of the biggest drivers of their social development: social media.

In an interview, Tierney said it's critical for tweens and teens to have a specific game plan when they come across threatening or bullying behavior on social media. Parents can't assume that kids will know exactly what to do.

"These kids are on the front lines of what's going on on social media," she said. "The school administrators are not on the front lines. Our teachers are not on the front lines. These kids are."

Tierney said there are three steps kids should take when they are online:

Be on the look out for anything that makes them feel unsafe.

Tell kids to trust their gut. They should note anything unusual or concerning - even something that might seem like a joke. Take advantage of teachable moments such as this week's threats at Wake County schools. Have discussions about them with your kids.

"It's those trust building moments of you sitting down with her and just letting her know, 'Here's a story of something that happened at a school. If you were ever to see that, here's what to do. Here are the steps,'" Tierney said.

Take a screenshot.

Posts and pictures can stay online forever, but with apps such as Snapchat or Instagram, they can become pretty hard to find.

"With disappearing Snaps and with disappearing Instagram stories, it's easy to say, 'Well, I might have seen this, but it's disappeared,'" Tierney said. "If you were to ever see something, consider screenshotting it."

With the screenshot, kids will have a record of what they've seen online.

Tell the right people what they've seen.

Tierney said we can't just tell our kids to "tell somebody." Parents need to educate their child on who that person should be. If they don't know who exactly to turn to, they may end up just telling a friend.

"You never know, that friend might talk them out of speaking up because of peer pressure" or concerns they'll get somebody in trouble, she said. "You never know what feedback they're going to get from friends with peer pressure going on."

Instead, coach your kids to tell an adult that they trust - you, another family member, a favorite teacher, a school administrator, a coach, an advisor or a pastor, for instance..

Coach them to "say something to someone who can step in and take the next step," she said.

The child should know that it's not on their shoulders to address the situation. That's the job of the adult that they confide in.

But, Tierney said, "it is on [a child's] shoulders as that foot soldier to say something to somebody you trust."

While this week's threats targeted entire schools, Tierney said this sort of behavior happens all of the time through cyberbullying that impacts individual students or smaller groups. The same strategies can help combat this even more prevalent activity, Tierney said.

Tierney did praise Wake schools officials for their response, saying it helps to set the tone for the rest of the school year.

"I respect how the school immediately notified all parents in a public way and reinforced that this is not the culture of our school," she said. "This is an extreme situation, but cyberbullying happens so much today that it’s more important than ever that the school stand up and define the culture whether it’s online or offline."

Now, it's up to all of us - kids and adults - to cut it back.

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