I never thought these issues would hit home, but three of my children experienced some form of cyber-bullying or concerns within three days.  Without getting into the ‘whether kids should have cell phones’ debate, I’ll outline what the rules for cell phone and computer use are at my house.

My middle school and high school children do carry cell phones.  They all participate in after-school activities, and cell phones are often the only way they have to reach home (for rides, to say they will be late, etc). They start out with pay-as-you-go phones to learn financial responsibility.  We have access to our kids’ phones, we have to pre-approve contacts and they share any text messages that they are concerned about with us at all times. Similarly, we check our computer, read their emails, and try to responsibly parent them through all this new media. Our computer is in a central place in our home, they have time limits for use and I am a proud MOS (mother over shoulder).

The first experience came when my 16 year-old son was getting anonymous harassing phone calls.  He told us about it, and hung up when he received them, but I could tell they were upsetting to him.  The next was a cyber-chain letter that my 13 year-old daughter received threatening that bad things would happen to her if she didn’t forward the email. The last, and the most upsetting, was a picture that someone sent my youngest daughter to her phone.  We couldn’t track the number, and unfortunately she had already opened the email before she brought it to us. (She usually shows us any emails from numbers she doesn’t know.)  We have had to take away her phone, which means she has to borrow one to contact us regarding after school issues.

After these experiences, I wondered how many of our students (that perhaps don’t discuss these things with their parents, or don’t have rules regarding cyber-communication) were going through similar issues?  I looked up some information (ironically online) on internet safety and decided to include them in this column.*

1. Talk about the rules for Internet and cell phone use.  Ask your students if they have discussed the times they can use the internet, or what rules their parents have set for their safety online and on their cellphones.

2. Encourage them to tell a trusted adult if they experience or come across anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, scared or confused.

3. Instruct them to NEVER share personal information by cell phone or over the net!

4. Teach them not to respond to mean or threatening emails or text messages and to tell an adult if they are being threatened or upset in any way.

5. Remind them to NEVER meet anyone in person they have met online or on their cell phone.  Even if that person claims to be a friend of a friend.  If after discussing the situation with their parents they need to meet someone, their parents should accompany them and it should be in a public place.

*Adapted from www.NetSmartz.org