It is a sound that I look forward to every day. The rattle of the screen door and the slam of the main door that signals my 9-year old daughter’s arrival home from her day in grade 4. But on this day, instead of bursting through the door with her usual breathless flurry of ultra-importnant “I can’t wait to tell you” news, the door’s slam was followed by silence. And then a long, loud wail.
She had been silently holding back tears during the 5 minute walk home from school, but her red eyes and blotchy forehead told me that she had already been crying that day. A lot.
“What happened?” I asked, fearing the worst. Had her best friend announced that he was moving? Had her teacher died? Had she witnessed an animal being run over?
“Mummy,” she moaned, “I logged into my school email this afternoon, and there was a message…”
I felt my heart sink. I dreaded what was coming next.
“It was from Sarah*. It said ‘i hate you and i am not being your friend‘.
She gulped for air through the tears, the wound still fresh.
“But it wasn’t actually from Sarah, Mummy. Someone else hacked into her account and send the message, pretending to be her.”
My mind reeled, and strangely, the first picture that came to mind was the computer scene from the 1984 movie, Sixteen Candles, where a blushing Molly Ringwald bites her lip in excitement as her computer is “hacked” by a mystery admirer. This is what we dreamed of when I was young: computers, pixelated photos, connections, love. Back then, cyber-bullying wasn’t even a thing.
“Who would do something like that, Mummy?” my daughter asked, a small chunk of her innocence stolen.
Media Smarts, Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, estimates that nearly one in two youth have experienced online bullying in the last four weeks. Together with the support of communications companies like Telus, Media Smarts is committed to developing digital literacy programs for Canadian classrooms and communities through online activities and involvement in events like WE Day, an inspirational, live stadium event to engage and empower youth to make positive changes both locally and globally.
“Teaching our kids media and digital literacy skills is essential for our economy and our society,” says Cathy Wing, Co-Executive Director of MediaSmarts. “A key component of that is empowering children and teens to build kinder and more respectful online spaces.”
“It could be anyone,” I said to my daughter, “but it was probably someone in your class.”
I knew that all students class all shared the same password. It’s a practice that many classrooms adopt in order to avoid students’ forgetting and resetting passwords.
In the email I said horrible, fierce things like… “God help us all when such a troubled kid gets a smart phone.”
Behind the safety of my own email account, I composed a regrettably angry email to the principal, my parental rage spewing out on to the keyboard. Whoever the evil perpetrator was, I wanted to see the child punished for hurting my daughter’s feelings.
In the email I said horrible, fierce things like, “this kind of behaviour is a gateway to cyberbullying,” and “I would suggest that the offending child should receive some counselling to prevent further behaviours” and “God help us all when such a troubled kid gets a smart phone.”
Thankfully, the school principal understood my parental knee-jerk reaction, but did not share my rage. My daughter’s school, while abiding by the Nova Scotia Public School Programs Internet Access and Use Policy and the School Code of Conduct, also advocates a restorative approach to conflict.
Restorative means bringing people together to share how an incident has affected them and others, A restorative approach means finding out what happened not “who did it”. It means discovering “who has been harmed” and “how to make it better,” rather than inflicting punishment.
My anger turned to sadness, when I learned the next day that the “troubled child” was not a school enemy, or a mean class joker, but one of our own; a dear friend of my daughter’s ; someone who has always been a welcome guest in our home; a sweet, gentle child who, quite frankly, we love and adore as much as any member of our extended family.
And the reason for the crime?
None. The child had simply heard about “hacking” and wanted to try it out.
It was just a mistake.
In grade 4, most “cyber bullies” are just children making mistakes
The next evening after supper, there was a knock on our door. The child and the child’s mother were on the doorstep. It looked like they had both been crying, the child hiding behind Mom’s legs, reluctant to come in. Mom herself found it hard to speak.
I coaxed them in and offered the sniffling hacker a hug. “We forgive you. It was a stupid mistake. It’s over now.”
Then the children went upstairs to play, and me and Mom had a restorative cup of tea.
I didn’t blame the child and I didn’t feel angry. In grade 4, most “cyber bullies” are just children making mistakes.
Most importantly, I felt proud that as parents, we had worked together with the school to support our kids through a difficult learning experience. I also found new admiration for my neighbour, a brave parent to come to our doorstep to apologize. That must have been hard.
Campaigns like TELUS #RiseAbove can help students, parents and teachers navigate their journey through the digital world and give them tools that will help them into junior high and high school, when the online universe becomes a more dangerous place.
Student resources like Was it Just a Joke? help students realize that sometimes a joke, or a mistake can have serious consequences. Parent resources such as Helping our Kids Navigate their Wired World can help parents communicate with their digitally connected kids.
I know that my daughter and her friend learned a valuable lesson, but as parents so did we.
Children make mistakes, and it’s our job to help them navigate them.
Cyberbullying intervention tips for youth:
- If you see someone bullied, comfort them privately and offer to help.
- Tell an adult, parent, or friend who can help you handle the situation.
- Save the evidence so you can show a trusted adult or report it.
Cyberbullying intervention tips for parents:
- Learn online slang and acronyms to understand what your kids are really saying on social media or in text conversations
- Recognize the personal nature of the online world.
- Have open conversations and make it known that you’re there for support.
- Remember that the law applies. Stay accountable, and keep accounts.
Telus #RiseAbove Campaign: TELUS.com/RiseAbove
HRSB Safe Schools: www.hrsb.ca/about-our-schools/parents/safe-schools
NS Provincial Code of Conduct Policy: www.ednet.ns.ca/docs/provincialschoolcodeofconduct.pdf
NS Provincial School Network Access of Use Policy: www.ednet.ns.ca/docs/networkaccessandusepolicy.pdf