Ask 2 Live: Raising ‘good digital citizens’ and more from our Zoom conversation on cyberbullying

HOUSTON – As the school year is back in session, more families have turned to online learning due to the pandemic. While online learning has been a new challenge for many families, students are now facing another challenge - cyberbullying.

On Thursday evening, our education team member Keith Garvin and reporter Rose-Ann Aragon moderated a lively discussion with experts working to protect families from cyberbullying.

Meet Our Panelists:

  • Rania Mankarious - CEO, Crime Stoppers of Houston
  • Sharifa J Charles - professional development specialist, Center for School Behavioral Health at Mental Health America – Greater Houston
  • Maurine Molak - Co-founder, David’s Legacy Foundation

Join the Zoom conversation here.

Here are the major themes that were discussed in the Zoom conversation:

How can you tell if your child is suffering from cyberbullying?

It can be tough to see those signs in a teenager. But sleeplessness, change in eating habits, depression, moodiness and anger can be some of the signs. Until you have a conversation with your kids, you can’t get to the heart of it Molak said. Also, sometimes changes in your child’s friendships might be a big indicator, Mankarious said. They will hide it for a period of time but eventually, they will get to a point where they can’t hide it.

What is David’s Law?

We got feedback from students, teachers, educators, prosecutors and anyone who would talk to us, Molak said. The heart of David’s Law is giving schools permission to be able to intervene in off-campus cyberbullying. It also requires all schools to have an anonymous reporting tool. There’s some reporting that schools have to do now due to David’s Law. The schools also are required to have some punitive consequences for cyberbullying.

How do we support students?

It’s important for any student-facing organizations to prioritize social-emotional learning to ensure kids are safe in a virtual learning landscape, Charles said. It’s about us really learning from this time, she said.

At what age should parents talk to kids about the dangers online?

Start as young as you can, Mankarious said. You may give your 4-year-old your iPhone or iPad for entertainment. We have to talk to them about being good digital citizens from the get-go, she said. We’ve done the opposite. We’ve thrown this technology in their hands with virtually no rules, she said. Now, seeing the effects of cyberbullying, we are going back. You can tell a young child the basics and then that message can grow and evolve as they get older.

Charles said empowering young people to engage and know their rights online. Molak said you can almost use anything that is online to have a conversation with your child. There are very simple things you can do to keep the conversation going. Bring your familial ethics into the conversation about online communication.

What are areas of concern for officials about new ways to cyberbully kids?

Kids have said they’ve worked on their image at school, Mankarious said. All of a sudden, now the whole classroom is getting a look inside my home, my room or my family, she said kids say. While teachers are teaching, the chat rooms are roaring and they’re laughing at each other. Think of where your child is while they are doing classes. Think of the image you’re portraying in front of your class. Parents have to be sensitive to the fact that it’s a whole new world. We worry about cyberbullying. We worry about truancy.

Mankarious said parents should be aware of how the kids are feeling through this new classroom environment.

What are some tips to help your child do well in virtual classes?

  • Sit up, dress appropriately
  • Be mindful that anyone can take a screenshot of you
  • Be careful about what you’re writing in the chat boxes and who those messages are going to
  • Talk to your kids about what happened each day in class
  • Be aware of “cancel culture” and how kids are taking arguments that are happening out of class into the school day
  • Places that used to be safe places for kids (home) are no longer safe when the classroom can see inside the home. Parents should be mindful of this

How can cancel culture impact kids?

If someone is vocal about a certain topic and the rest of the group does not like that, the group shames that person until they are “canceled," Molak explained. It’s gotten to be a very serious issue with young people. We need to teach our kids and young adults how we can disagree in a respectful way so we are not shaming someone. We need to tell our young people that mistakes happen and that they should not feel shamed, Molak said.

Mankarious said a study has shown that there’s been a 70% increase in cyberbullying and 40% increase in toxicity in gaming this year. This then spills over into the main workday in class. You kind of feel like you have an army around you, she said.

Cancel culture is an exaggeration of being blacklisted or blackballed like celebrities, Charles said. We’ve all taken part in it in some form but now it’s become much more pervasive. Social media is how kids stay connected and define their level of self-esteem. Cancel culture is extremely exclusionary. Their well-being drops.

What do I do if I found out my child is the online bully?

It’s important to think not only about the victim but also the bystanders and the perpetrators, Charles said. There are many reasons why: power struggle, lack of attention, unmet needs. The grown-ups in their lives, it’s important that they look for signs and symptoms of your child being a perpetrator. Kids can be very secretive and not want a parent see their phone. Look at their level of empathy. As a culture, we believe in privacy for young people but it’s still important for parents to be involved and know who their friends are. If you are concerned that your young person is a cyberbully, it’s important to look at how they engage with others.

Are there criminal consequences for cyberbullying?

There are. Due to David’s law, it is a class B misdemeanor and it can be bumped up to class a misdemeanor if there is suicide-baiting or a few other things, Molak said.

The impact of David’s Law is so huge and cleared up so many misconceptions and created clear guidelines, Mankarious said. The fact that David’s law has helped countless kids.

Do you think parents understand the full ramifications of online dangers?

Parents don’t get it, Mankarious said. It doesn’t matter if a parent thinks their child is very sweet, they are still engaging in a world that is not normal. They are pulled in a culture online that is different from their home life. Don’t say “if my kids experience bullying online or bully other kids or see nudes," Mankarious said. Say “when."

Know about what your kids are doing. All the social media accounts that you know about and push to learn about the ones you don’t know about.

Charles said cyberbullying cuts across all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. So no one is exempt. What was norm for parents is not norm for kids. They have all these options on social media. The internet makes a child’s world bigger, which Charles said is a beautiful thing but it also makes them more vulnerable. Keep the checks and balances in place for your kids.

Molak said parents find it hard to keep up with kids. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Sometimes, for anyone who has had teenagers, there are times when you are really not getting along with that teenager. It’s at those times, you need to make sure they have someone they can go to. Your kid always needs to have that person in their life that they know and trust and go to no matter what, Molak said.

What’s the best way to prevent cyberbullying?

It’s sometimes unrealistic to tell kids they can’t have social media. But we can talk about how they are to behave. Parents need to sit down and think about what their child’s brand is online. All kids have a brand online and what they post is telling. Talk to them about their brand and find out if they will be the kind of person who defends others, Mankarious said.

Bark.us is a great company, Mankarious said. It helps you monitor your children’s online activity.

What else do parents need to worry about online?

Parents need to be cognizant of the fact that the internet is a really dark place and pornography is everywhere, Mankarious said. It’s literally a click away and it’s not just regular pornography but XXX pornography. Children are being exposed to this very early in life and it’s changing the way they develop mentally and emotionally.

Porn sites got more traffic in 2019 than Amazon and Netflix combined, Mankarious said. It’s very important that parents keep an eye on what their kids are doing online.

What are the step-by-step measures to report cyberbullying?

Be sure to take down as much detail about the cyberbullying:

  • Time
  • Date
  • Content

Make sure your kids know you have their back when they report someone’s bad behavior online. Cyberbullying can impact someone for the rest of their life so it’s important to address it as a community to protect our young people. Keep an eye on signs and symptoms. Focus on the protective factors in your young person’s life.

Suggested documentaries

The Upstanders — a documentary about Maurine Molak’s journey to get David’s Law passed

Social dilemma (on Netflix)

Childhood 2.0 — a documentary about growing up in a digital age