Maria’s Musings & Advice: Online Harassment

hands-typing-7Dear Maria,

I’m wondering if you have suggestions for helping your teenager handle online harassment from peers. My high school-aged kid has a former friend who regularly posts things about her on various social media sites. Sometimes it’s direct, using my teen’s name, making negative comments about her, and encouraging others to do the same. Sometimes it’s thinly-veiled, stuff that someone else may not know is about my kid, but she knows and their peers know. Regardless, it all hurts and is doing serious damage to my teen’s confidence and social life. It’s hard for my daughter to defend herself online because anything she writes in response gets shot down by this kid and their peers. As parents we can see that over the long run, the kid who is harassing our teen is on a path for self-destruction, but in the short-term we don’t know how to best support our kid.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions you have.

Signed,

Mom Who Wants to Support and Empower Her Teen Against Online Harassment

Dear Mom,

Remember, back in the day, when the circles of people our children interacted with were small? When they were little, we could easily connect the dots to who-said-what, and call on other adults (teachers, troop leaders, sitters) to help with hurtful situations. Now, teens interact on so many different platforms. The connections can be amazing, and damaging. It makes my head spin. Here are a few hard-learned insights of mine, and the wisdom and guidance of Tavi Gevinson, speaker, actress, and founder of Rookie magazine.

Tavi shares your signature sentiments, but she’s 20 years old! She’s a cultural critic and feminist advocate who’s smart, savvy, and stylish. Here’s sage advice in a Rookie magazine article on gossip. Two takeaways: One, in many cases, the gossip is best confronted in a social media-free exchange. Believe it or not, when the telephone was first invented, critics feared it would lead to the decline of civil conversation, due to the loss of face-to-face interaction. They had a point. Today, I wish teens would use the phone, not just texting or online forums, to clear the air. Two, with malicious gossip (page 4 of the Rookie article), the author suggests not reacting to the gossiper, and enlisting the help of an interlocutor, if possible. My daughter has survived a few rounds of online gossip and lies. In two cases, my husband and I called the parents of the gossiping child. It stopped immediately. In another case, school administrators intervened and counseled the students involved to dial down the drama and call a truce. Our daughter resisted the help, at first. We let her handle things on her own, until it became clear that intervention was necessary. (She was relieved when we did.) You’ll know when the time is right to step in. Plus, it’s an opportunity to model for your daughter how to take a calm stand in an escalating situation. With my maternal super audio and visual powers, I can tell there have been other instances that she hasn’t let us in on. I trust she’s handling it as best she can, and learning along the way. (Additional resources can be found through the National Center for Victims of Crime website.)

wpid-IMAG0722.jpgIt’s painful to see our children suffering. I wish I could download all my life lessons to my daughters. But, they’ve taught me that they learn best through their own experiences. What we can do is model what real friendship and love looks like, especially while they are hurting. We can listen and comfort, and shore up their strength as their own, best advocate. It’s okay to be hurt, but not to succumb to anonymous potshots. Their true self is not the broken person their critics portray them to be. For every person who doesn’t appreciate them, there are dozens who do. As moms, we’re in a key position to reflect to our children their innate goodness and worth. When I praise my daughter, she shrugs it off with, “You have to say that—you’re my mom.” But I’ll keep on praising, trusting that I’m contributing to a reserve of inner strength that will come in handy throughout her life.

In the midst of their hurt, let’s give them space, but not let them become isolated. Teens want to be left alone, but sometimes I think it’s a test to see how hard we’re willing to work to get to them. They’re worth the effort, and to be loved by people who are proud to do so. Our homes can be a haven where feelings are safe and they feel loved and accepted.

Learning to take the long view is part of adult-ing. Continue to counsel your daughter to keep her eyes on the horizon, all while offering Kleenex and hugs. Be with her while she’s hurting, but lift her gaze to the healing. Share, where appropriate, your own experiences. She may shrug it off as, “Well, that’s the way it was for you, but it’s different for me.” Still, you stand in testimony to the fact that a person can and will survive mean gossip, and emerge a better person. Our challenge and charge as mothers is to nurture our children into capable, confident adults who live with integrity. Unfortunately, that formation includes painful experiences. Check out Tavi’s powerful TED talk for guidance on self-image, and empowering young women to make their own decisions:

Thank you so much for your letter; I’m in solidarity with you, and welcome our readers’ comments. Moms, what do you suggest? What works to help your child with online harassment?

Dear Readers,

In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.