Kids, Social Media Use, and Cyberbullying: the Role of Parents


Last April, as I was up to my eyeballs in cyberbullying among my middle schoolers, a New Jersey middle school principal told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he had emailed his students’ parents stating that “there is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site.” He urged all parents to prohibit their children’s access at home, and he was met with tremendous resistance.

While the rash of suicides attributed to bullying on FaceBook, MySpace, YouTube, and texting have been concentrated in high school, there have been younger teens in middle school who have also taken their lives. The downward trend towards younger and younger students finding ways to aggress electronically towards peers has grown, now becoming common in elementary school, with students as young as fourth grade creating FaceBook pages for the sole purpose of attacking a targeted classmate.

The risk of harm to kids from adult online predators is far less than the danger posed by peers who emotionally torment via status updates, wall posts, “de-friending,” photo tagging, and texting. Preteens and young teens simply are not psychologically ready to handle the potential weapon of social media any more than they are ready to handle guns, cars, alcohol, and other items that our society properly withholds from children until they have the maturity to use them in a safe and healthy manner. Twelve-year-olds have a hard enough time dealing with puberty, refining social skills, and developing self-confidence. They don’t need FaceBook in their impulsive hands.

Most parents have no idea how disruptive to schools this new wild west of social media ambush among students has become. Parents of children who have been either bullies or victims are well aware of the pain involved in their own circumstances, but have little concept of the collective tsunami of cyberbullying reports that face school administrators every day.

A personal anecdote from my days of running a school: Monday mornings sometimes involved the routine of arriving on campus around 8:00 a.m. to find lines outside each of my two office doors. One line in the hallway might contain three or four distraught students. The second line—ready to pounce on me from the front office if allowed access by my administrative assistant—consisted of parents holding stacks of paper and cell phones.

Talk about triage!  The crying students had many tales of weekend persecution to tell, and were trying to get ahead of each other in line to see me first. The parents held cell phones with saved text messages and voicemails, and FaceBook printouts of dialogue between their child and other children. All wanted to see me immediately to “prove” what was going on.

If there are comic undertones in this description, forgive me, for I do not take the issue of cyberbullying lightly. However, dark comedy was indeed how it played out at times, especially as I looked at my watch, the to-do list on my desk, the appointments on my calendar, and the number of people outside my office in crisis. There were days when I knew I would get nothing done beyond a futile effort to unravel, defuse, referee, assuage, discipline, teach, and in myriad other ways simply cope for yet another day with the destruction wrought by social media on youngsters, their concerned parents, and the primary mission of schools—teaching.

My parents never visited my school Head to complain that during a sleepover another child had been mean to me. That is essentially what is happening today, but in high-tech format, which often makes it harder, not easier, to unravel the social tangle that does not belong in the principal’s office in the first place. In instances of threats to a school or threats of physical harm to self or others, schools must act quickly. Most bullying, however, happens outside of these parameters and outside of school—fully in the domain of family.

Children are in loco parentis at school for approximately 35 hours per week; they are the responsibility of their own parents for the remaining 133 hours. Even with the new (and highly flawed) anti-bullying legislation, our society will get nowhere with this problem without parents bearing the primary responsibility for raising their children. As I once told a group of parents, “I can’t help you until you help me. Please take FaceBook and texting away.” I was amazed at how few parents would stand up to their kids and follow through. Sadly, until more do, things could get worse before they get better.