Sexting. Nexting. Cyberbullying. Young teens chatting with random cyber strangers.
Don’t believe this happens in Auburn? Ask a 13-year-old.
We did, and the response was startlingly candid. And chilling.
For parents, the response may go beyond unnerving.
Bullying, by text message and online, happens every day. Sexting is not uncommon. And teens, burned by creeps who inhabit random chat rooms, talk about which sites to avoid if they don’t want to be face-to-penis with a “pervert” (the teens’ word).
Last week, we talked to a group of 10 Auburn Middle School students about their Internet and cell phone use, what their parents know about that use, and what they do to stay safe. Parents of each student gave the Sun Journal permission to talk with the teens.
One teen, who received an anonymous nasty note on her Facebook page, told her mom about it and they talked it out, with Mom providing advice about blocking that particular sign-on. The teen is still nervous about accessing her account, but she knows her mom is available to talk should it happen again.
Another girl, who has also received nasty notes, would never tell her mother because “my mom would freak out and take my computer away.” The teen would rather, she said, chance a brush with a bully than risk losing her computer and cell privileges.
There was a feeling among the young teens that, in general, while some parents are keyed in, too many parents do not have a clue about what is going on in cyberspace, what their teens are seeing and reading, and what they’re posting on the Web.
Auburn school administrators share the sense that parents, even the most well-meaning parents, are often less educated than their children about Web use and, this year, organized a parents’ night to talk about texting, sexting and other topics sure to make any parent squirm.
According to Carl Bucciantini, AMS technology integrator, about 100 parents of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders attended, prowling the same sites their children prowl and seeing first-hand what sorts of bullies might be watching for their children.
As unsettling as the topic is, Bucciantini said parents appreciated the inside view of the teens’ Web world.
The school has also made cyber danger prevention a required part of every students’ curriculum. Every child in every class is taught good Internet practices, and warned about the great potential for danger at every social networking site they browse.
The students warn each other, too: Don’t go to anonymous chat rooms, like chatroulette.com
Chatroulette.com is a site where a user can simply sign on and then click to chat with someone at random. Tired of one chat? Click “next” to meet someone new.
The problem with “nexting,” according to these middle-schoolers, is that if you enter a video chat, by the time you realize you’re chatting with a pervert, it’s too late. You’ve seen too much. Happens all the time, they say.
Do parents know that? Students say they don’t.
Do parents want to know? Students understand that they do.
Students also understand that when parents freak out — and, according to this group, Moms freak louder and more frequently than Dads — it’s because they want their children to be safe, but these teens feel they should be trusted to make good decisions about their social networking.
The challenge for most teens and parents is coming to some shared and workable understanding about what level of scrutiny is appropriate and acceptable for each of them.
According to our middle-schoolers:
• In some households, parents require them to share their passwords and sign-ons to every social networking site. These teens expect parents to check their text logs and to be “friended” on Facebook. If Mom isn’t a friend, the daughter isn’t allowed to have a Facebook account.
• In other households, conversation about social networking chats suffices as enough monitoring, and staying in touch by cell phone when not at home maintains adequate trust.
• In other households, students wouldn’t dream of sharing any online personal information with parents, and they resist all parental efforts to monitor e-chats or cell phone use.
One student, whose mother threatens to check her text log but never does, said she doesn’t want her mother to monitor her e-business. Parents, she said, should remember that they “did stuff when they were kids” and should understand their own kids will do the same.
“Parents just should counsel their kids about it,” she said. “Not make their decisions for them. Just tell them what can happen” online. That should be enough.
Other students disagreed. Some strongly so. They like a sense their parents are closely monitoring their chats, knowing they have someone to turn to in case of bullying, or something worse.
Although some of the students acknowledge sharing more personal information than they should online, others are more savvy about it. One girl, who uses Skype to talk with friends and family, lists Panama as her home country on her profile. Another girl said her profile reports her living in Japan.
“Don’t tell them where you live,” the teens advise. “Don’t share your cell phone number.”
“MySpace is supposed to be for your friends. Not people you don’t know.”
The problem is, in Auburn and elsewhere, more than friends are knocking on the virtual door.
In Northhampton, Mass., where Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince was harassed in school and online to the point where she felt the need to take her own life two weeks ago, the intensity of cyberbullying is under scrutiny. Prince’s death prompted the Massachusetts State Legislature to talk about joining 38 other states, including Maine, to enact anti-bullying laws that require every public school district to develop anti-bullying programs — including cyberbullying — for students.
According to the Massachusetts Aggression Center at Bridgewater State College, which studies cyberbullying, the phenomenon of the virtual bully was recognized in 2005-06 as increasing numbers of students had access to the Internet.
According to its research, 42 percent of students now report being bullied or knowing someone who has been bullied. Girls are victimized more often than boys, and girls tend to bully more than boys. It’s a power thing.
Of the six students facing charges in the Prince suicide case, four are girls.
At Auburn Middle School, every student we talked with was aware of a bullying incident among their circle of friends. Every student.
According to researchers at the Aggression Center, cyberbullying seems to escalate in middle school as students define themselves by “getting even” and coming to the defense of their friends. By the time they get to high school, there is more of a tendency for teens to delete messages or simply un-friend a bully rather than striking back.
The Auburn School District has been proactive about cyberbullying, enacting strict policies about computer and cell use during the school day.
Cell phones cannot be used during regular school hours, and private electronics — like iPods and games — are also banned during the school day. No cameras in locker rooms and bathrooms, and students are not permitted to publish or distribute photos taken in school or at school events without the permission of everyone in the photo.
When sexting was recognized as a problem at Edward Little High School last year, the technology department initiated measures to educate students about the dangers of posting photos online, and the problem eased.
At AMS, the teens seem sensitized to the fact that these kinds of embarrassing photos could be online forever, possibly disrupting future job prospects or college applications. It’s just not a good idea, one boy said.
School bullies are not new creatures, as parents and teens both know, but technology has provided a means for bullies to be more relentless. Bullying extends beyond the school day, into the afternoon and through the night. And, sometimes, the person being bullied doesn’t even know the bully in real life.
What can parents do?
AMS students say parents should be open to talking about the problem without overreacting. Although most seem willing to handle minor bullying themselves, they know they may need help if the problem escalates. The real problem, though, is that many of their parents — Moms in particular — get upset and angry, which the teens say doesn’t help.
One girl said that if she were certain her mom wouldn’t “freak out” about “everything,” she would absolutely talk to Mom about more things. But she doesn’t because she just doesn’t want to deal with her mom’s reaction.
Teens want to be able to show and tell their parents when they’ve been bullied, have accidentally nexted through to a pervert or had embarrassing photos posted online, but it’s scary knowing that what they have to share might upset their parents. The teens also said they would alert an adult if they knew a younger child was being bullied or victimized, but not necessarily if that happened to a friend. The teens said they would more likely help each other resolve the conflict than get a parent involved.
Peter Robinson, technology director for the Auburn School District, said the best advice for parents is to remember that teens make choices based on the people around them, so parents need to be aware of what their children are doing and what their friends are doing. Parents can teach responsible chat and text use by example, and be available and encourage their children to talk about the dangers they face and what they can do about it.
Cyberbullying, texting, sexting and nexting trends may be relatively new but they are hideously strong and dangerous, as victims will tell their friends and parents. We need to listen.
Advice for parents from Auburn Middle School teens:
• Calm down, Mom. Dealing with Mom’s overreaction was often worse than dealing with the ugliness online.
One AMS teen said that if she thought her mother wouldn’t overreact to every hint of cyberbullying, she might talk to mom about more things that scare her.
• Don’t bring your work problems home. If you’ve had a bad day at work, teens don’t necessarily want to talk about it. Teens want to talk about their day, their problems.
• Pay attention to me and my friends, but don’t be ridiculous about it. There’s a fine line between being interested and prying.
• Trust me.
• Remember what it was like to be a teenager and cut me some slack. I’m not going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge just because one of my friends would. And if I did, I’d be smart about it and use a bungee cord anyway.
Web guides on social networking
For parents and teens:
Anonymous social networking sites teens and teachers say should be avoided:
The online Cyberbullying Research Center, established this year, offers candid advice for parents, teachers and teens about online relationships, including guides for appropriate student-teacher communication, preventing and responding to cyberbullying, the connection between cyberbullying and suicide, trends in online social networking, a report on what kinds of personal information teens tend to post online, and other issues surrounding e-harassment.
In February, the center interviewed 4,000 teenagers in a single school district in the southern United States and found more than 20 percent of the teens reported having been cyberbullied, including receiving mean messages from someone pretending to be a friend, or someone posting a mean or hurtful picture online. Of those interviewed, 8.2 percent reported being physically threatened by text message, and 7.1 percent reported being physically threatened online.
Among the same group, 19.7 percent admitted to cyberbullying others, including spreading rumors online, physically threatening others and pretending to be someone they are not in order to embarrass or hurt someone. Of those who cyberbullied others, 21.1 percent were girls; 18.3 percent, boys.
The results, according to the center’s research, were high rates of sadness, frustration, anger, embarrassment and fear among victims, particularly middle-schoolers.
According to the center’s site, the Cyberbullying Research Center is dedicated to providing up-to-date information about the nature, extent, causes and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents. It defines cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.”
For more information, go to: www.cyberbullying.us