Countless children around the world are desperately unhappy and many have committed suicide because of cyber bullying and online blackmail. Just last month 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick jumped to her death in Florida because a barrage of online hate from two fellow schoolmates left her feeling worthless and despised. Her mother had closed her down her Facebook account in response to the bullying but it later emerged that Rebecca had continued to be hounded on other social network sites like Kik,, Instagram and Voxer. Her tormentors repeatedly told her she should kill herself and were also threatening physical harm.

In July another American, 17-year-old Daniel Perry, took his life because the girl he’d befriended online and sent nude photos turned out to be an extortion gang who were blackmailing him for thousands of dollars. Fear and shame are common emotions tipping kids over the edge, or at the very least motivating them to keep their misery private from family and sometimes friends. This seems to have been the case with Daniel.

The world children and teenagers inhabit is highly digital and therefore much of what they experience can be kept hidden, leaving parents and teachers in the dark as to what thoughts and experiences are really dominating their lives. Since youths are often more brash, experimental and indiscreet than adults in their interactions in general, they often unwittingly open themselves up to cyber bullying and online blackmail by befriending strangers on social networks, sharing sexually provocative photos of themselves, taking part in verbally abusive online games, and so on. They then lack the emotional and other resources to deal with the matter wisely, bringing it to a swift and conclusive end.

Guidelines for protecting your child

Cyber bullying is a particularly pernicious form of bullying as it follows children home – if their web connection is 24/7 then the possibility of their being bullied through social media and other online avenues also exists 24/7. While in many cases cyber bullies are anonymous strangers, just as often the bully is known to the child, being a fellow student at school. Listen to the stories your children tell you of mean kids at school, knowing that cyber bullying is frequently an extension of real world bullying and so clues about their online world may lie in their physical world. Also take note of behavioural changes in your children; not all show signs but many do, such as aggressiveness, caginess, loss of confidence and deteriorating relationships.

The extent to which parents are able, from early on, to manage boundaries for their children – boundaries that allow a sense of freedom but within the limits of appropriate responsibility – largely determines the extent to which that child will grow up capable of independently managing his or her own moral boundaries as well as online boundaries of self-expression[1]. Many parents fall on either extreme of this spectrum, being either overly harsh – they create rigid, non-negotiable boundaries that prevent children from learning to manage boundaries independently – or too permissive – this can leave children uncertain of what is appropriate behaviour and of how to create wise boundaries on their own.

If you suspect something damaging is in fact going on in your child’s digital world, it’s important you adopt a level-headed and informed approach to what is taking place. Don’t panic. A major reason why children don’t disclose online problems is fear that they’ll have the technology taken away from them, thereby taking away a large part of their social lives.

I highly recommend you put effort into becoming more tech-savvy yourself. You will better comprehend their online environment and its related dangers if you have at least a working knowledge of the sites, social media and apps they use. Beef up on text acronyms; for example, did you know that 8 = oral sex, 143 = I love you, KPC = Keeping Parents Clueless, LMIRL = Let’s Meet In Real Life, and zerg = to gang up on someone?

Important conversations

 The best way to help prevent your child from experiencing problems on the internet is by taking an active and informed interest in their lives – online and in the real world. Specifically, have a conversation with your child about their life online. Then, have another. Find out what they love about the internet and keep up an active interest, that way if problems arise you’ll be the one they turn to. It also helps when children are encouraged to create realistic profiles online that create a sense of authenticity. Furthermore, don’t wait for a crisis before explaining to your child the dangers of things like webcam abuse, what online blackmail entails, what constitutes bullying, and so on. Prevention is always better than a cure.

Ways to open a conversation about online activities

  • I wonder if someone threatens you online who you feel you could tell?
  • How do you think you could get into trouble online?
  • I wonder how you think Mom or Dad would react if you ever did get into trouble online?

Things to say in that conversation

  • Never share an image or do anything on a webcam you wouldn’t be happy for family or friends to see.
  • If someone threatens you online tell someone you trust. You can talk to me about it and I’ll understand.
  • If you do get into problems online, it’s never too late to get help. We will understand. You won’t be blamed.

If your child tells you they’re being blackmailed

  • Acknowledge the courage and maturity it took for your child to come and tell you.
    • Believe your child and tell them you believe them. Their experience needs to be acknowledged and understood.
    • Don’t blame them, and tell them you don’t blame them. Even if they’ve engaged in risky behaviour, understand that risk-taking is a normal part of adolescent development.
    • Don’t immediately ban them from the internet. Although you may need to take short-term safety steps, the best way for children to stay safe is by learning how to negotiate the online world in a responsible manner.

Excerpt from

Guidelines to give your kids

■      Don’t talk to strangers and do not accept phone calls, text or instant messages from people you do not know.
■      Never meet with someone you met online without your parents.
■      If someone is horrible to you or scary, tell an adult straight away.
■      Understand that everything you put online will be there forever.
■      Make sure that your personal information is not available to just anybody.
■      If you’re hacked, change your password and check your hard drive.
■      If in doubt about something, don’t wait – consult an adult.

[1] Attachment theory (originated with John Bowlby)

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