There is no devastation greater than having your child commit suicide. We want to do everything in our power to prevent young people from feeling the level of despair and hopelessness that could cause this to happen. Tragically, sometimes their struggles fall under the radar of the adults who can help them until it is too late.
In an anguished quest to understand what had led to 15-year-old Audrie Pott’s despairing decision to end her life, her parents and stepparents discovered through text messages and Facebook posts that Audrie had been sexually assaulted the week before she killed herself – and that the teen boys who did this had sent out a humiliating photo and comments that she believed had spread all over her school. Three days before her death, Audrie had written messages of despair on Twitter and Facebook, saying, “My life is ruined now!”
None of the adults who love Audrie had any idea of what had happened to her until after she died. Choking back tears, her mother explained, “Teens live in a world of their own.”
In honor of Audrie’s memory, I find myself asking, “In addition to holding the attackers accountable, is there anything we can learn from this tragedy that can help prevent future suffering?” The impact of technology on age-old problems of bullying, teen drinking, and sexual violence is one of these issues.
According to some estimates, teens spend half their lives online. These electronic worlds are too dangerous for our kids to live in without the knowledge and guidance of the adults who love them.
Too many times, adults don’t discover online messages about cyber-bullying, parties with heavy drinking, or warning signs of despair or violence until after something terrible has happened, when the opportunity to take protective action is gone.
We recommend that parents make their children’s use of mobile phones, social networking, and other technology contingent on making safe choices and on parents being able to see what their kids are doing in the virtual world as well as the real one. This means having ongoing access to your child’s text messages, social media, online gaming, and email, not in a secretive spying way, but in an upfront way, as part of the deal.
“But that would be embarrassing! “ many teens will object.
Parents can agree not to interfere or discuss anything they see unless safety is an issue – and not to post or even “like” something on their kids’ social media venues without permission. It’s like being in the other room while teens are having a party – we can hear if things get out of hand and are there if needed, but don’t need to have our presence be obvious in an intrusive way.
We need to think of communication technology in the same way we think about using matches, sharp knives, stoves, and cars. We are careful about kids using these powerful tools because we understand that they can be used for good purposes, but can also, in an instant, but cause unimaginable and sometimes irreversible harm.
Even if teens feel embarrassed and get angry about the “I need to be able to see what’s happening” requirement, a core Kidpower principle is to Put Safety First, ahead of embarrassment, inconvenience, and offense. When you insist, persistently and respectfully in the face of heated objections, you are modeling how to Put Safety First.
“But what about the right to privacy?” many people will argue.
Believing that anything shared electronically is truly private is a mistake. At any age, we need to remember that, if we are texting or posting something we wouldn’t want a trusted family member to see, it’s probably not wise to post or text it in the first place. Many parents give kids permission to have online accounts with the advance agreement that they can check the account content at any time, because this support helps growing teens assess what they post.
“But what about supporting my teen in becoming independent?” many parents will worry.
I wish that we could have a magic formula for finding the right balance with teens between insisting on providing adult protection and guidance when needed while respecting that our teens are becoming more mature and independent. Our challenge is to give freedom to strengthen independence, but not to give freedom to do something we believe is dangerous just because ‘all the other kids are doing it.’
Although someone can make sudden destructive choices at any age, teens are at greater risk of taking actions that might harm themselves or others because their abilities to control their impulses, think ahead, and make accurate judgments are still developing.
According to research by Dr. James Giedd, Chief of the Unit on Brain Imaging in the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health and his colleagues, adolescent brains keep developing until their mid-twenties, especially in the prefrontal cortex, which controls planning, working memory, organization, and modulating mood. As the prefrontal cortex matures, teenagers can reason better, develop more control over impulses and make judgments better.
Freedoms such as going to a party with no adults, being left on their own at home, as well as use of the Internet and any communication technology, should be privileges to be earned, not entitled rights.
At Kidpower, we recommend the following five-step process to prepare young people for more independence:
- Make realistic assessments about your child or teen in each situation. What are the pitfalls of this place or activity? How well can my child or teen resist peer pressure? Is my child or teen comfortable in asking me for help? Are there potential problems that we need to address before going forward?
- As a family, learn and practice “People Safety” skills such as those taught in the Kidpower, Teenpower, and Collegepower programs. “People Safety” means people being emotionally and physically safe with people.
- Co-pilot with your child or teen to field-test the use of these skills in their daily lives. This means staying connected with your kids’ activities everywhere they go in their physical and electronic worlds. Watch how they are interacting with others and provide a safety net when needed.
- Conduct trial runs to rehearse independence in controlled doses with adult backup.
- Keep communication open with listening, ongoing checking in, and review.
To help prevent future tragedies, we must stay aware of what our teens are doing until they have demonstrated the ability to take charge of their own emotional and physical safety and to act respectfully and safely towards others in their physical and electronic worlds, including social media and gaming environments.
Protecting Kids from Suicidal Thoughts
How to Prevent and Stop Cyber-Bullying
Preparing Children For More Independence
CollegePower for Parents: Supporting Your College Student’s Independence, Safety, and Wisdom
CollegePower for Students: Take Charge of Your Own Safety
Protecting Yourself From a Sexual Assault
About Kidpower Teenpower Teenpower Fullpower International
Kidpower’s child safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Kidpower is a global nonprofit leader in providing child protection education and personal safety skills for all ages and abilities. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People. Since being established in 1989, Kidpower has protected over two million children, teens, and adults, including those with special needs, from bullying, sexual abuse, abduction, and other violence through workshops, consultation, and educational resources. Our K-12 curriculum is used by families, schools, and youth organizations for their own child safety programs. www.kidpower.org