The kids are (mostly) all right—even online 

Talking cyberbullying in time for Pink Shirt Day

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CLARE OGILVIE - Canada marks Pink Shirt Day Wednesday, Feb. 26 to symbolize taking a stand against bullying. Whistler Secondary Students are pictured sporting their pink shirts back in 2015.
  • Photo by Clare Ogilvie
  • Canada marks Pink Shirt Day Wednesday, Feb. 26 to symbolize taking a stand against bullying. Whistler Secondary Students are pictured sporting their pink shirts back in 2015.

In the '30s, it was radio. In the ‘50s, it was Elvis. In the ‘90s, it was TV. These days, if you’re looking for something to blame the erosion of our youth’s moral fibre on, the smartphone tends to be the boogieman of choice.

“One of the things I say to parents when I do these presentations is that most of you were brought up in one of those generations and you’re doing OK. I would argue that most of your kids are going to do OK as well,” explained Darren Laur, president of internet safety and digital literacy education specialists, The White Hatter.

Since 1993, the Victoria-based company has presented to more than 470,000 youth across North America, including in Whistler. But, at least in today’s digital landscape, it’s often the parents who have the most to learn.

“We deal with a lot of juvenoia and moral panic with parents, so we’re upfront with good evidence to help destroy the idea [that the internet is inherently bad],” said Laur. “One of my goals in my parents’ presentation is, No. 1, to encourage their kids to get online but do it in a safe and secure way, and No. 2, my second goal is to calm parents down. Too many parents believe that the internet is full of these horrible, ugly, evil things that are destroying our kids.”

That’s not to say that dangers don’t exist online. Statistically speaking, one in nine North American youth will be contacted by someone online they don’t know for the purpose of exploitation, and one in four kids will be the target of online harassment or bullying. But like any digital platform, it’s not social media itself that’s the issue, but how it’s used.

“It’s not how much time they’re spending online, it’s what they’re doing online. If all they’re doing is consuming online, that’s like digital junk food for the brain,” Laur said. “But if they’re being creators and producers and change-makers, that’s what creates critical thinking and helps develop the brain.”

Recent research appears to support this point. According to a study last year out of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro that tracked smartphone use in American adolescents, increased screen time is not linked to worsening mental health. In fact, in some cases, the use of technology actually reduced worry and symptoms of depression among participants.

“I try to make parents understand that those of our kids who become really good digital citizens, those kids have a higher chance of getting into college, university or a job,” said Laur. “But those kids that are not becoming good digital citizens, they will be at a disadvantage because what they’re saying and doing online can come back to haunt them and make it very difficult to get into college, university or even get a job.”

The key, Laur said, is to strike what he called “the triad” of responsible parenting when it comes to their kids’ digital lives: participation, communication and oversight.

“A lot of parents think if they just put monitoring software on the phone, that will be good enough. No, it’s not,” he added. “It’s like a three-footed stool. You need to have parental participation, some communication and parental over-watch. If one of those legs is missing, the stool will collapse.”

Christine Suter tackles these issues in Whistler’s schools as the Healthy Choices facilitator for the Whistler Community Services Society, and she believes it is important that families keep the communication lines open and establish clear boundaries when it comes to kids’ digital activity.

“I think that’s a conversation worth having with kids,” she said. “If you’re starting to feel uncomfortable with what you’re discussing online, are there boundaries set around that? Do you have somebody that you’re talking to?”

Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Paul Hayes said that, in his experience, cyberbullying among youth can take several different forms, including personal shaming, online arguments that escalate, and social exclusion. He encouraged youth experiencing bullying online to speak up to someone they trust.

“When it comes to youth, they need to be talking to a trusted adult about what they’re dealing with so it can be addressed appropriately,” he said. “It’s one of these things where it’s never a good thing to deal with on your own, in solitude, because it doesn’t tend to get resolved well that way.”

National Anti-Bullying Day, also known as Pink Shirt Day, is today, Feb. 26, but Laur wants to see the issue brought to the fore on more than just one day a year.

“I actually think that Pink Shirt Day needs to be every day,” he said. “Yeah, it’s important for Pink Shirt Day to shine a light on this, but far too often after Pink Shirt Day is over, people forget. This is something that we need to be constantly shining a light on.”

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