Teach your kids how to drive Internet

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Social media sites are not bad places in and of themselves, but evil lurks

What kind of a person would goad a teenager into killing herself, telling her she’s worthless and hated? An anonymous Internet troll, that’s who.

It’s the kind of thing that happens all too often on the World Wide Web.

The Internet’s far-ranging and quick-acting reach has been a wonderful tool for so many causes. Information is shared at the click of a mouse, connecting far-flung friends and family; bringing professional solutions to places with fewer resources; matching donors of all kinds with people who need money, items and even blood and organs.

But for all the good on the Internet — as with humankind — there is an evil side.

In a recent local case, an anonymous poster on the maligned social media site Ask.fm told a Charlottetown teen, “Go cut yourself and die” in a series of posts that appeared soon after the anguished 14-year-old had tried to do just that.

She was upset by the correspondence. Her mother is angry. There is little either of them can do.

The victim has a screengrab of the posting and Charlottetown police are aware of it, but they told the family that the Latvia-based site is outside their jurisdiction.

Parry Aftab, a lawyer who specializes in Internet privacy and security law — and who spearheaded last fall’s International Stop Cyberbullying Youth Summit in Charlottetown — agrees with police that options are limited when it comes to this kind of a crime. “They have not been very co-operative with law enforcement or us,” said Ms. Aftab, who is the executive director of stopcyberbullying.org.

She told The Guardian, “When you deal with these sites you either shut them down or you fix them.” At this time, there is no indication that Ask.fm is receptive to either solution.

Anonymity on the Internet isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, nor is Ask.fm. Teenagers — the primary drivers of the site — use the invisibility to ask some serious questions they might not otherwise feel comfortable sharing. They can get good, supportive answers in return.

They can also get harassed.

Telling a teen just to stay off of social media is not the answer. Especially one who craves reassurance and validation — or harbours doubts about what “they” might be saying about him or her on there. Just because you no longer log in, doesn’t mean they’re not talking about you.

Nor is telling the youngster’s parents to ban them from the sites. History shows us that kids will always find a way around the most stringent of rules and the Internet is too pervasive, and too good a resource for legitimate connections, to unplug.

The best we can do as parents and a society is to teach children how to access the online world in a safe and responsible way. Just as we wouldn’t put children behind the wheel of a car (another powerful tool with good and bad consequences) without some lessons, neither should we expect young men and women to know how to drive the Internet without some guidelines and supervision.

That goes for keeping young users safe, as well as preventing them from becoming perpetuators of cyberbullying.

The Prince Edward Island government was involved developing the initiative www.cybersafegirl.ca, which is a good first step for young people — female and male — to take on the information highway.

We want our sons and daughters to grow up to be self-assured, caring and informed citizens. The Internet should be viewed as an aide and not an enemy to that end.

Geographic location: Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

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