Editor's Note: Our thanks to Marsali Hancock, President of the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, for helping us continue this series in honor of Internet Safety Month.
Kids and teens live their lives online, and because their online communication is faceless, they often are emboldened to reveal details about their state of mind, leaving telltale indicators or "bread crumbs" of their well being. For example, a 16-year old boy in the UK was chatting online with a girl in Maryland about taking his life. The girl told her mother who alerted Maryland police, starting a chain that involved a White House Special Agent, the British Embassy in Washington, Scotland Yard, and finally the local Thames Valley Police who managed to narrow down the suspect pool to eight based on a name and a school. The boy had overdosed but was still conscious when authorities found him. His parents had no idea he was considering suicide.
When bystanders are fully armed with the skills they need to respond to digital crises, they can often prevent an incident. As a digital culture, we haven’t begun to mine the emotional and psychological data that kids offer up to peers online. In this setting, other users (bystanders, professionals, and peers) are in a position to reach out to at-risk youth—those showing an interest in self-destructive behaviors such as suicide, self-mutilation, eating disorders, or drug use. Online "friends" (bystanders) know when something is wrong, often before the adults know.
As an adult community, we need to empower the bystanders, first by letting them know just how much influence they have. In 85% of schoolyard bullying incidents, bystanders play a role by either reinforcing the bully’s actions or by not taking any action at all. When a peer intervenes on behalf of a victim, bullying stops 57% of the time in less than 10 seconds (Craig, W. M., & Pepler, D.J., "Observations of bullying and victimization in the school yard," Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 13, 41-59 (1997).). One kid who is willing to report harassment (even when it isn’t directed at them) can have a big impact on the behavior of the whole group.
Bystanders are in a position to improve the general web environment and behavior of all users by self-enforcing acceptable behavior for citizenship. All web users benefit when bad behavior is reported. Experiencing real consequences for online behavior helps youths understand that online communications are public, and though they sometimes feel anonymous, all digital interactions can be traced by service providers and law enforcement back to the user.
We also need to create better support networks to match what youth experience online and get better at detecting needs, identifying what they’re experiencing, and providing easy mechanisms for intervention. Bystanders (often friends in real life) are carrying heavy burdens alone because they know things about their friends but don’t know whom to tell or how to be helpful. A quick lesson at school on how find help online or close to home can go a long way toward engaging the bystanders.
Parents can find evidence of an eating disorder and get help long before their daughter turns into a waif or follow the digital footprints of an adult attempting to groom their child and intervene. The public health and law enforcement communities become active bystanders by responding to evidences of risk online.
Three things Parents can do today:
- Keep Current with the technology and web services your child uses. "Friend" them on facebook, and pay attention to who their friends are. Know how to use the reporting and privicy functions and set an example of flagging inappropriate content or behavior when you see it.
- Keep Communicating: Have a conversation today about when to call 911; explain that you don’t have to know an address or even a full name to engage professional help during a crisis. Show them how to use the reporting mechanisms (flagging/tagging) provided on the sites they use and encourage them use them when they see any bad behavior. Explain that everyone benefits when all users join in self-policing their community.
- Keep Checking your child’s internet and cell phone activity. Watch for "bread crumbs" of risk, such as drug/alcohol use, self-harm (cutting, mutilation), eating disorders (often labeled pro-ana/pro-mia), or violence and be ready to engage the public health community on their behalf.
Spread the word: we become full digital citizens as we take up the responsibilities of an active bystander. We can create online and offline structures to support youth, and be better at prevention, detection, intervention, reporting, and responding to incidents in digital environments. Each of us can be part of the solution.