How kids get in trouble online...

I’d like to share some thoughts and ideas around how and why children and adolescents get themselves in trouble online.  I had the good fortune to listen to Dr. Elizabeth Englander from the Massachusetts’s Aggression Reduction Center ( speak this past weekend and in her presentation she brought to light a series of six ways technology is distorting and changing the way our children communicate online.  We’re still processing what to do with this information, but the points make a lot of sense and perhaps we or you can use the information to frame some rules or guidelines for your child and their online presence.  There is no escaping the fact that your son or daughter is going to be online and sharing, so trying to stop it is not the answer.  We as adults have to figure out a way to make it safe for them.

Let’s look at how technology distorts the way our kids and we us as adults communicate via text and social media:

1)    The limited nature of communication

When we are speaking with a person face to face we receive and take in all kinds of information beyond what they are actually saying.

  • Most obviously all the non-verbal cues - body gestures, hand gestures, facial expressions, etc.
  • The location of the conversation.
    • Is it at home, in a school, at a mall, in a park.
  • Who is around and possibly hearing the conversation.
  • All the feedback you get from the others in the conversation when you pose questions or make comments.

When we are communicating digitally almost all of that disappears.  All we see are the texts.  This can lead to huge misinterpretations about what is written.

  • Think about how you feel seeing all capital letters or using or not using emoticons.
  • These misinterpretations often cause over-reactions or make the reader over-think the words.
  • How many times when texting, have you thought:
    •  “Are they mad at me?”
    •  “Why haven’t they responded? What did I do wrong?” 

2) The difference between public and private

Our kids know that what they post is not private.  We have been saying this every year since they were little.  This said, if they know the Internet is public why do people continue to post stupid things:

  • When you are talking face-to-face your mind uses all kinds of external cues to know the conversation is public or private.
  • In a mall, outside at recess, on the phone in their room, even standing in the school hallway.
  • The people involved know whether what they are saying in private or public (could be over-heard).
  • But when they are in their own room or on the couch in the basement… 
  • The external cues say it is private even though at their heart they know that by posting the picture or writing the text it is no-longer private.  This confuses the brain and often over-rides their core knowledge of what to do.
  • Frustration or anger about something can cause impulse reactions that wouldn’t happen in many situations.
    • A good example of this is how children act (and the language they use) in the presence of an adult as opposed to when they know no adults can hear them.
  • The small screen size makes the brain believe that what they are doing is private.
    • If nobody can see what is on the screen except me, then it must be private.

 3) The increase in self-focus

There has been a tremendous increase in the number of people taking selfies and also the number of selfies each person is taking.  Let’s look at some ideas around this:

  • For boys, attention tends to be verbal.  What can I say or do that will make those around me laugh, so boys tend not to take as many selfies.
  • For girls, it is about how they look at that moment.
    • What are portraying? Is the way they look saying what they want to say? I’m cool, I like a particular type of music, is the lipstick I chose a good match for my eyeliner.
    • The devices are used as a kind of mirror.  Except the mirror isn’t in their room, it is online.

4) The repetitive nature of the Internet (and texting in particular)

When students communicate online they tend to text with several kids at once in a kind of group chat.  This can often result in many answers to a posed question, which amplifies the answer for the recipient.

  • For example – A girl takes an innocent selfie of the outfit she is planning to wear and sends it a few friends.  You can imagine how you feel when a group of your peers all decide they like or don’t like what you are wearing. Your reaction is amplified each time someone comments.
  • This is where we often hear “I didn’t mean to do it…it snowballed out of control.”
  • This also happens when you receive multiple texts about the same thing.  All their friends commenting about something that happened at school can easily cause an over-reaction. 

5) The mob mentality

This is the idea that since others are doing it, it is okay, or the feeling of anonymity online.

  • It is becoming more and more popular to use an app to hide your real identity and make comments.
  • This of course is false anonymity – if needed it is possible to find out just about anything. 

 6) The novelty of Social Media

Our children are entering a world (the digital world) where what is the normal or the accepted practice of doing things, has not been established.  Each family may have their own ideas, but they can be radically different from next family. 

  • When and when not to "Like" something (a picture or comment or Facebook page).
  • What pictures are all right to post?
  • When are you supposed to give kids smartphones?
  • When and where is digital technology used?   
    • For example – only in the living room, only for an hour, do you require yourself to be friend online (so you can see what is happening). 

There are so many questions here, and each family is developing answers and a framework for dealing with this on their own.  Children and adolescents thrive on rules and guidelines and it is up to us as parents and educators to put those rules/guidelines in place.


For more information about our children being online here are some resources.

 Kids and Social Media

Tips for Texting

Dr. Elizabeth Englander