“IT'S LIKE BEING IN THE DARK AND GETTING POKED WITH A STICK”
KELOWNA – The first days back to school can be nerve wracking enough with the pressure to fit in. But with social media now ubiquitous inside and outside the classroom, kids today are finding themselves in social encounters their parents' generation never dreamed of.
One Kelowna mother recently told InfoTel News she was astounded to discover her young teen's latest mode of chatting with friends: Ask.fm – a website linked to multiple teen suicides including the recent death of a 14-year-old UK girl.
“You just ask questions like, name your top five boys or top five girls, or, if you had to date one of these girls who would it be?” she says. “Back in my day we used to do it on paper.”
This however is twenty four seven and worse yet, anonymous.
It took a violent death threat before her daughter finally broke down in tears. They knew the comment came from one of her school peers, but not much else.
“She's walking through school without knowing who the actual bully is,” she says.
In the last eight months she's gone twice to police - one of the few things parents can do to intervene in what is increasingly known as cyberbullying.
But proving criminal intent behind the online threat was more complicated than expected.
“If a home has one computer and five people are using it, who was it?”
RCMP Const. Kris Clark says it's particularly difficult for courts to prove whether the person behind the keyboard is indeed the registered account user.
“The onus is on the person being bullied to take steps in order to reduce it,” such as blocking the individual to prevent them from sending further messages.
Unless the threats escalate into verbal confrontation, police told the Kelowna mother her only recourse is to get her daughter offline. That sounds simple enough, but a devastating blow when a kid's social life has migrated from the schoolyard to the iPhone.
“That's where everybody goes to socialize,” she says. “They're addicted to checking it because things change every second - it's like checking on your own business.”
School District 23 chairperson Moyra Baxter agrees.
“They feel lost without it,” she says. “Kids used to go off, play and invent, now they're just sitting on their phones.”
While schools are starting to take a zero tolerance policy on cyberbullying, embracing awareness campaigns like Pink Shirt days, Baxter says kids are getting mixed messages.
“Our larger culture is part of the problem, you cannot go anywhere where you don't see people with these devices in their hands and in their faces all the time,” she says. That includes today's teachers, who often encourage students to bring laptops or if necessary, cellphones, for class lessons.
Kelowna students preparing for the new school year are all expected to use technology responsibly, Baxter says, but if they find themselves targetted by sinister web activity it should be reported to police.
“If they're getting violent threats online, certainly bring it forward to us,” Clark says.
And parents need do their homework too, he says. That means finding out what sites your child is using.
“As a parent, sometimes it's difficult to get your kids to talk to you,” he says, adding maintaining open communication is key.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Julie Whittet at email@example.com or call (250)718-0428.