It was an ordinary Tuesday after school. Sixteen year-old Allison was texting back and forth with her best friend Katie; both were trying to analyze if their secret crushes liked them “just as friends” or “more.” Every now and then, they’d exchange song lyrics and highlight the lines they loved.
Then it popped up out of nowhere. Another friend texted Allison, “OMG. Go see what someone wrote about you on Ask!” Allison felt the dreaded “stomach flip” that escorts bad news. Her hands stung with sweat and her fingers fumbled as she opened the app on her phone to read the comment: “Were you born like that or did the doctor drop you and @#$% your face up? Where do you buy your clothes, Goodwill? Are you serious? No one even likes you.”
The words started to blur as hot tears spilled down her face. The comment was anonymous but Allison knew the girl who posted it. For the next few days Allison didn’t talk much to anyone. Her mother asked her repeatedly what was wrong and her brother and father tried to get her to laugh. She pulled away, snapped at them to stop, and spent the next three days in her room with the music blasting from her earphones. It took about a week to get her to crack a smile and slowly divulge the details of what happened.
Mean girls are nothing new (even Laura Ingalls had to deal with Nellie Olesen in the 1870s) however, the fallout from their meanness has definitely been amplified by mobile technology—sometimes, with tragic results.
The above is a true story (names changed) that a mother recently shared with me. And, it’s a story unfolding in a lot of houses at this very moment.
“I used to be nervous letting her ride her bike to the park, then letting her drive to school. I never thought I would be so fearful letting her use her phone!” the mother confessed. “Should I just not let her have a phone at all?”
My heart ached for this mom. I’ve too have considered taking my kids’ phones away and not letting them own one until they turn 18. The drama, the arguing, the rules, the 24/7 hodge podge of influences streaming into our home—it gets to me. A lot.
But I know eliminating the phone is not the answer. Taking a phone away from a child today (a digital native) is like taking a car away from our generation and telling us to ride a horse and buggy to work. Technology (in general) is now a predominant social tool, a school requirement, and a factor in a child’s future livelihood. Many of the skills and knowledge our children will need to succeed socially and professionally in a digital world is at their fingertips and shaping them daily.
No, eliminating the phone isn’t the answer. Balance, teaching, monitoring, and coaching our kids through the conflict is.
“I know it’s hard,” I told the mom. “But, we can do hard things and we can teach our kids to do them too. These mean girl encounters are valuable and will help us raise strong kids who can handle themselves in any situation. The game hasn’t changed, just the tools. We just have to commit to be on our game.”
So I’m writing this for that honest mom I spoke to in the hallway at a middle school this week. And for parents inclined to throw up their hands in surrender thinking their “digital native” kids can run circles around them when it comes to working technology.
Remember parents, knowing how to “work” a piece of technology is impressive but knowing the proper way to “use” that technology in every day life—how to honor people, how to handle conflict, how to preserve self-esteem and lead—well, that’s where the wisdom of the digital immigrant (parents) becomes critical.
My word of encouragement to parents today is this: Hang in there. You can do this. Don’t quit. Your kids need you more now than they’ve ever needed you before.
5 ways to help your daughter handle mean girls online
- The comment is not about you. Remind your daughter that the hurtful comment or behavior isn’t about her—it’s about the bully. “Hurting people hurt other people,” is a constant reminder in our home.
- Don’t stuff the hurt. Tell someone. Get support from a friend, a parent, a teacher or a school counselor. Another person can give you the perspective you need to put the drama in it’s true light. And, if the bullying is out of control, an adult can step in and help immediately.
- Hold your head high. Confidence makes a bully think twice. Don’t return a harsh comment with fighting words just respond with, “You don’t know me at all so your comment doesn’t even make sense. You need to stop. Now.” If you see the bully in school, don’t look away, look them straight in the eye.
- Separate truth from fiction. A few mean, false comments dolled out in front of online peers can steamroll a young girl’s self image. Try to tie your daughter’s thoughts back to what matters and who matters. Inject reality (truth) into her thinking as often as possible. It’s likely she’s replaying the episode or obsessing over the negative comment. For example you might say: “The truth is you don’t know that person and she doesn’t know you. You are smart, funny, beautiful and you’ve got talent and dreams that no one can touch with mean words. Focus on what’s real and let go of what is a lie.”
- Be an original. Learning to respect, love, and appreciate your uniqueness is a tough journey for most teens who are simply trying to “fit in.” In fact, the more different you are, the more you may become a target of a bully. Your daughter will need your help to find her rhythm in this area. Constantly remind her: “sharing your hurts with others, standing up to a bully with confidence, and focusing on what is true about you will help you build love and respect for yourself.”
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @SafeEyes. (Disclosures).
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