Over the decades, kids have seemed to find a place to have a good time that was all their own. Their own world.

What we have now is a dilemma. Kids, I think, still need that space and for many it’s being online. Where are the lines? Legitimately, the suicide of 15-year old Phoebe Prince has rattled many parents. Something went terribly wrong in that part of Phoebe’s world.

In preparing for parent workshop at a local elementary school on Friday, I was thinking about concrete things we can do to give kids their space but to help stop bullying from overpowering their emotional health.

What I ended up with was a few simple suggestions… but I’m also left with a few questions.

The ContractKnow the Territory

• Start with a simple contract that sets the ground rules for all technology that can be posted next to the computer.

Up to grade 5

The younger ones might actually have fun going over it with you. It shows you’re interested.

Grades 6-8

The older kids may roll their eyes, be embarrassed or maybe even a little mad. Do it anyway.

High School

High School is hard. Some type of contract or agreement is still necessary but you may want to handle it with care. Establishing rules about texting and online behavior becomes even more important but you don’t want to treat them like babies. Even talking about Phoebe’s story may illustrate how their safety and happiness is at the center of the need for some boundaries.

Side Benefits

Experts are great about saying, “Talk to your kids.” What does that mean? It’s hard to just randomly start talking about subjects that you’re not exactly comfortable addressing. A contract gives you a reason and the words to open up the conversation — and with your focus on the contract, you don’t even have to give each other eye contact which can make these conversations more relaxed. It’s a time to set consequences so it’s clear that when the rule is broken, there will be a punishment. Just like any parenting issue, consistency is key.

Two easily downloadable contracts: Common Sense Media, and FOSI (Family Online Safety Institute)

Take a Tour

The Great 2010 Online Tour

If you’re not familiar with what your kids are doing online, ask them to take you for a “tour.” If that feels awkward, ask them to show you something on YouTube and then keep going. Make them feel like the expert not a criminal. For example, when the contract talks about “personal settings,” and you’re not sure what that is, ask your kids to show you. It’s ok not to know as long as you’re willing to learn.

Compliment them for being so smart online. If there’s something you don’t like, ask questions, don’t just leap to being mad. The goal is for your kids to TELL you when someone bullies them or acts inappropriately. They definitely will NOT tell you if they think you’ll be angry instead of sympathetic.

The overwhelming majority of kids DO NOT TELL A PARENT when they are harrassed online. That’s a huge problem right there. By the time a parent finds out, the damage is done. Kids are trying to navigate the super highway of emotions online. It’s isolating, debilitating and frightening. And the last thing you want is peers to parent peers only. Peer to peer advice is great in some instances but not always when it comes to the big stuff like their reputation.

Those are two suggestions that I’m going to throw out there on Friday. I’ll keep you posted on whether they were well received or if they’re realistic/useful in any way.

Now for the question. Why do we let our kids on Facebook or MySpace at such young ages? I know many are on even younger than 13, the supposed minimum age that Facebook or MySpace allows.

I know they feel left out if they’re not on. I get that and fitting in is SO important. That’s not sarcasm. It really is…BUT it’s still a little risky. At the middle school age and into high school, friends are fickle. Things turn quickly. Egos are forming. According to the statistics, at least 3 out of 10 kids are cyber bullied. Even nice quiet kids “flex their muscles” online.

Could parents of classmates decide as a group to hold off on letting their kids have Facebook or MySpace pages? I’m just asking. Could the conversation be included in schools’ open houses? Could information go home to parents of 6th, 7th, 8th graders?

It’s easier if not everyone “is doing it.” Just a thought. You may want to consider talking to your friends and your school. You know what they say…”Safety in numbers.”

And after all is said and done, I still think it’s important for kids to have their own space. Monitoring every little move seems unnatural but it needs to be balanced with enough involvement that they’re not in the woods totally alone. When they get lost you need to know how to find them.

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