As painful as it has always been for its victims, bullying used to be something that could be escaped by reaching the front door of your home. Now, as much as parents try to prevent it, that boundary no longer exists.
Social media doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to strike fear into the hearts of parents and teens everywhere. And yet it continues to do so.
To summarize the story, Schilling posted a sweet tweet congratulating his daughter for being accepted into the university where she will be playing softball next year:
Congrats to Gabby Schilling who will pitch for the Salve Regina Seahawks next year!! — Curt Schilling (@gehrig38)
Then the online trolls lumbered out from underneath their bridges and started smashing up the scenery. According to several screenshots Curt collected, much of the response was unspeakably vile. And the tweets targeting Gabby weren’t just sexually inappropriate, they were sexually violent.
Understandably, Curt was not pleased. And he went (almost) full-on Liam-Neeson-in-Taken-Dad-Mode and dug up enough information on two of the prime culprits to expose them publicly on his blog. Both are now facing real-life repercussions for their virtual interactions. (According to media reports, one, a college student, has been suspended, and the other was fired from his job selling tickets for the New York Yankees.) And Gabby was appreciative of her dad’s effort. On Twitter, she wrote:
don’t know what i would do without you, i love you so much!! — Gabby Schilling (@GabbyS_chilling)
As parents, it’s easy to understand Schilling’s reaction and motivation. A God-given desire in our hearts as parents is the impossibly strong desire to protect and defend our children. So, while we can’t always predict or deflect every nasty online blow, how do we help our children navigate these often-murky social media waters? Here are three practical steps:
1) Teach kids to understand the size of their digital footprint.
Unless you live totally off the grid, you have some kind of digital footprint. There just isn’t any way to get around it. Recognizing that can feel a little scary, but it can also be liberating. Because when we realize that our digital footprints exist and begin to understand how they are created, we then have the opportunity to take better control of them. We do that by deciding which social media platforms (if any) we should use, linking each choice to a strenuous exercise in establishing the “why” of it. Again: Ignoring our footprints by merely drifting into various social media enclaves leaves them entirely outside of our influence. Not good in the digital world. Not good at all.
2) Show kids that there are right and wrong ways to use social media.
There are much-touted ways out there to make your social media accounts more private, but they don’t always work. And your settings don’t always even stay the way you want them to. So the safe assumption is that anything and everything placed on the Internet is capable of finding its way into public view.
In light of that, always use the Internet—especially social media—with the assumption that everything you do is public and free for all to see. There are a lot of things we seem to think we can get away with saying from behind the “comfort” and “privacy” of our personal devices. But it’s only when we get it into our heads that we are never truly anonymous on the Internet that it’s easier to understand how important good behavior is in digital spaces.
Treating people with dignity and respect should never stop just because we aren’t speaking face-to-face. It’s obvious to most of us that the kinds of horrible things the two men posted on Twitter about Curt and Gabby Schilling weren’t cool. It’s harder when we’re just throwing off a cutesy but cutting comment about a teacher or a classmate. But the two things are identical, really. So always type things out online as if you’re emailing your grandma. Or your pastor. Or Jesus Himself. Only post pictures you’d want to blow up to poster size and show your whole home room class at school or your boss at work.
3) Establish together that social media—even used responsibly—comes with risks.
Unfortunately, no matter how responsibly you use social media, there are always some risks involved. Gabby Schilling is a prime example of this. In this case she was dragged through the mud through absolutely no fault of her own. Nor was it her dad’s fault. Nothing inflammatory or controversial was posted by either one of them. It was an unfortunate and uncomfortable situation where twisted bystanders decided to take something innocent and defile it. This may never happen to you. But it also might. That’s why it is so important to understand the risks that are inherent to social media use. We can’t always (and shouldn’t always) keep our kids from using social media, but we can help them wade into its deeper waters at appropriate times, in appropriate ways, and with appropriate preparation.
When we do so, we help prepare them for what they might face and help them understand the risks before they encounter them. We can help show them what it means to be a responsible digital citizen, and how to respond wisely if and/or when they encounter the negative side of humanity on the Internet.
We don’t have to be scared of social media. It isn’t a monster. But we do have to understand what it can allow the monsters inside of us to do. None of us are perfect and we won’t get social media perfect. But we can do it better, and we can use it for good if we approach it with caution and intentionality.
For more information on navigating the Social Media Age as parents and teenagers, check out the free guide “Social Networking Challenges Every Parent Should Know” from [Content]Watch (the makers of Net Nanny Social), and a two-part podcast from Focus on the Family featuring Dr. Kathy Koch called “Managing Technology’s Impact on Your Kids.”