Adults are becoming more and more savvy about protecting kids from cyber bullying—harassment using technology, such as email, instant messaging, or social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. But during the upcoming spring break, when kids have more unstructured time than usual, they are also at risk of exposure to bullying through text messaging (“text bullying”), or even being “sexted,” using the text-messaging feature on cell phones, which a reported 87 percent of teens own (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2008).
“Sexting” is sending nude or sexually suggestive pictures and accompanying text via cell phone. Although the original “sexter” may only send the suggestive message to one person—a girlfriend or boyfriend, for example—that message can be forwarded to anyone in the recipient’s address book, and from there, all across a school or community. Once it’s out there, there’s no way to take back the message or the accompanying embarrassment or humiliation.
There are possible long-term consequences, too. Since school admissions officers and potential employers often look at online profiles, the repercussions of sending an inappropriate message could be endless. And one newspaper reports that sexters can “face felony charges for child pornography” (Borgman, 2009), landing them on the registry for sexual predators, a label they’ll bear for the rest of their lives.
What Kids Can Do About It
According to the Anti-Defamation League, critical thinking is “the best tool against hate” (Tiven, 2003). You can coach kids to use the same problem-solving skills for text bullying that they would use in any other situation. The more they think before pressing the “send” key, the less likely they will be to disseminate a photo or message that will get them in trouble and ruin their reputation.
When kids receive harassing or inappropriate text messages, there are several things they can do:
- Never, ever respond to the message sender.
- Report it as soon as possible to a trusted adult (and if that person doesn’t help, tell others until someone does).
- Save or print the message to keep a record, then delete it from the phone.
- Only keep contact information of close friends and family in their address book.
- Talk to their wireless provider about how they can help (such as blocking the messages or changing their number).
What Parents Can Do About It
If critical thinking is a kid’s best defense against text bullying, communication is yours. Just as you talk to your kids about sex, relationships, and drugs, it’s also important to talk to them about how they use their phones, and with whom. “Supervising and monitoring your kids’ whereabouts in real life and in cyberspace doesn’t make you a nag; it’s just part of your job as a parent” (NCPTUP, 2008).
It’s best not to take away kids’ phone privileges when they come to you with a text bullying problem. That might make them feel as if they’re being punished for someone else’s transgression. Here are some things you can do instead:
- Talk to your kids about text bullying and sexting, especially the short- and long-term consequences.
- Monitor their cell phone use: Who are they texting? Who is texting them?
- Suggest that everyone’s cell phone stay on the kitchen counter or another centralized place while they’re home.
- Set rules about the kind of behavior that is and is not acceptable—on a cell phone, or anywhere else. Remind kids of the rules periodically.
- Many cell phone provider’s website allow for varying degrees of parental control available from their website. This allows for parents to control the hours of which a child may receive or send text/pix messages, block callers/numbers from any activity on that specific phone line, and keep record of your child’s mobile activities.
Borgman, L. (2009, February 24). Safe sexting? There’s no such thing. Lexington Herald-Leader.
Brock, K. (2008, May 6). Text bullying. WLS-TV Chicago, IL. Retrieved February 24, 2009 from http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/national_world&id=6124134.
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2008). Sex and tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults. Washington, DC: Author.
NCH: The Children’s Charity. (2005). Stoptextbully top 10 tips. Retrieved February 24, 2009 from http://www.pkc.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/F1ABA3FA-C050-4913-BD29-0AC7A531F110/0/StoptextBullyingTop10Tips.pdf.
Tiven, L. (2003). Hate on the Internet: A response guide for educators and families. Albany, NY: Anti-Defamation League.