Editorials, Opinion

Keep online drama from going IRL

Many were likely shocked, though perhaps not surprised, by the story of an online fight that ended in real-world violence in Westover, with an 18-year-old in police custody and charged with assault and a minor in the hospital with a concussion and other injuries. “Shocked” because of the brutality of the fight. “Not surprised” because it is no longer uncommon for arguments started on social media to result in real-world drama.

Social media is no longer just a reflection of our lives — it’s an extension. We actively engage with others through comments, shares, tags and direct messages. For young people, social media is essential to their interactions with their peers. So what starts in the real world can continue on social media, and what starts on social media can continue IRL — “in real life.”

What can we, as the adults in kids’ lives, do to prevent a fight like the one in Westover?  

We can teach them to withstand peer pressure and that actions have consequences. We can also keep an eye on them and their social media interactions without invading their privacy.

Standing up to peer pressure means our kids have to have enough self-assurance to go against the crowd — but that requires a strong support system. When our kids know they can talk to us and that we will support them regardless, it makes it easier for them to say “no” when peers want them to say “yes.”

We also have to teach them that actions have consequences: Online actions can have real-world consequences, and real-world actions definitely have real-world consequences. For example, schools are cracking down on cyberbullying, even though it mostly occurs off-campus. And if an online argument becomes physical, like the fight in Westover, then kids can be seriously hurt and, yes, even end up in jail.

Keeping an eye on our kids requires walking a fine line. University of Connecticut assistant professor Caitlin Elsaesse has worked on dozens of studies about adolescence, violence and social media — one of which found the most effective way to prevent kids from being involved in cyberbullying — as victims or perpetrators — was a combination of “high warmth” and “high control” (with a caveat).

“High warmth” meant parents were supportive and active in kids’ lives. We understand this to be as simple as having regular check-ins, open and honest conversations and reassuring them that family and friends are there for them.

“High control” did not mean “high restriction.” Rather, parents were aware of their kids’ online and offline activities. In the most effective strategies, parents worked with their kids to set boundaries regarding social media use, such as what apps were appropriate to use, how much time should be spent on them and who they should interact with and in what ways.

Parents who made unilateral decisions about what their kids can and can’t do did not lower the chances their kids would become cyberbullies or victims. In our anecdotal experience, using highly restrictive control on kids doesn’t prevent certain behavior — it just makes them to hide it better. And that can make it even harder to keep our kids safe.