Editorial: New — but not

Bullying is nothing new. Smack talk between kids is nothing new. Cliques, rivalries, jealousies, middle school drama — none of that is new. What is new is the way these practices and attitudes are being propagated using technology. What used to be done through an unsigned note left in a locker or a crank call made late at night is now done more often through social media that makes it easy to hide behind a screen name.

It’s obvious that social media is allowing children — and adults, too — to be nasty in new and inventive ways. Anonymity breeds recklessness, and sites like Instagram and Vine, Twitter and Snapchat and even Facebook and MySpace make it easy to be anonymous, or at least to think one is.

But we must remember, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the remarkable tools we now have at our disposal — what we often take issue with is how those tools are being used. Teach, encourage, and model good practices and behaviors in everyday life and social situations, and those will carry over into the way our children behave online.

Childhood is spent trying to figure out how to interact with others and how to fit in to society. Electronic social media is, like it or not, now an inextricable part of that society, so learning to navigate it is part of what kids need to figure out.

When someone misbehaves online — threatens, harasses, uses hurtful, ugly language, tears down another, sends inappropriate, damaging images or messages — we need to take it very seriously. The victim needs to be comforted, reassured, and protected. The perpetrator needs to be helped, too. People who behave that way, whether its face to face or with the shield of electronic devices, are putting up a very obvious red flag that they need help figuring out how to appropriately and constructively express their emotions and interact with their peers. If we don’t pay attention to that red flag, shame on us.

Here’s what parents can do to help stem the tide of electronic bullying and harassment:

Talk to your kids about the value of kindness and honesty.

Learn how to use the devices they are using. Have them show you the sites they are visiting. Have them teach you how to post, to tweet, to chat, to Skype — and if you don’t know what those are, have them tell you.

Monitor your children’s online activities. This doesn’t mean standing over their shoulders, but it does mean periodically asking them to show you exactly what they are looking at and talking about it. Let them know up front you will be checking on what they’re saying and doing online.

Don’t ban technology, but limit it. A $500 phone or a $1,000 tablet is a privilege for a pre-teen or teen (even if they “saved up” and bought it themselves). Set when and where rules, and then model good behavior by following those rules yourself.

Make sure kids are comfortable reporting to an adult they trust online behavior that makes them uncomfortable for any reason. Anything remotely threatening or that sends up that red flag should be reported immediately (by an adult) to the police.