The elephant in the chatroom: cyberviolence

Prepare yourself and your children for the difficult conversations

 By Fawn Logan-Young 

We hear the term “cyberviolence” more in this age of intensified social media. It refers to online behaviour that can lead to physical, emotional, or psychological harm to the victim’s well-being. 

Examples include online bullying, threats, blackmail, hate speech, luring,
and non-consensual image sharing. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Online actions have real-world consequences.

You may wonder why I am talking about cyberviolence when your child is in elementary school. If you read until the end, I promise you will take something from the insight I gained working and observing the experiences of junior-high students in HRM. 

A few years ago, YWCA Halifax contracted me to create and facilitate a workshop to address the evolving issue of cyberviolence. In the junior-high where my colleague and I worked, many parents and their children were having difficulty engaging in open, honest conversations about cyberviolence experiences. 

Parents wanted guidance on where to draw the line between trusting their children to be responsible online and censorship. However, to even approach this issue, many were unaware what their children were encountering. Although I am not an expert in the topic, I knew where we could be effective and was attempting to open lines of communication between adults and students. We invented the project knowing there would be a parent night where we would be able to present our insights. 

After some small group discussions with the students about their encounters with cyberviolence, we asked them to make a character profile. These profiles included physical and interpersonal characteristics. Following this step, the groups created life-sized drawings of their character using paper rolls. Each depiction embodied a collage of magazine cut-outs and drawings to interpret the experience the character was going through in relation to cyberviolence. 

Next, the groups created background stories to further illustrate their depiction of their role. They may have been a bystander, a perpetrator, or a victim of cyberviolence. These stories did not necessarily have to be true, but many admitted to me that the stories they created were inspired by true events. They would later place the stories somewhere on the character they made, hidden by a paper flap. 

Fast forward to the parent night. As parents and teachers walked into the gym that hosted the presentation, they saw dozens of teen characters hanging sporadically along the walls. Some were tall, some were short. Some had long hair, some had no hair. One was depicted as a “nerd,” while another one was a new student who had just immigrated to Canada. The diversity of the characters was endless.

When it was our time to present, we had the parents take 10 minutes to walk around and observe the characters without reading the stories hidden under the paper flaps. They were to pick one or two of them and attempt to interpret what they believed the character was experiencing. After 10 minutes, they were to go back to their chosen character to read what their true experience was under the flap. Here are a couple of examples: 

A personal profile created by one of the youth participants at the Y Cyberbullying workshop.

A 14-year-old girl who was chatting with a boy online and wanted to meet him in person without her parents knowing. Luckily, she said, she found out before she went to meet him that he was older than he had said. She didn’t follow through with the meeting.

A 13-year-old girl wanted to play a joke on her friend. When the two were in the changing room for gym class, she secretly took a video of her and sent it out to a group chat of four other friends. By the following day, the video had been leaked and many of the victim’s classmates had seen it. The victim left school, not returning for two weeks. 

Many parents were amazed about how different the story under the flap was to their initial interpretation of the character. Many seemed hesitant to accept that such actions were truly happening to teens in their community. 

A Halifax Regional Police officer who specializes in youth cyberviolence also spoke at the event. She confirmed that each story reflected cases she had worked. From the comments of parents that followed, many were coming to grips with the realities their children were facing and openly shared their epiphanies. Their takeaway from the project was a better understanding of the experiences of children and youth online. My hope was for the parents to truly embrace the realities of cyberviolence. 

Although there is no one solution to protecting children online, the project demonstrated that there is at least an opportunity to open lines of communication at a young age. 

Some kids are oblivious to how their actions online can be harmful, while others are oblivious to the threats that they may find themselves in. This is where parents can help, through guidance and transparency with their children. 

If parents make their children aware of online etiquette and create an environment where their child would be comfortable approaching them with an issue in the future, it would be a step in the right direction for the upcoming generation of social media and cellphone users.

Fawn Logan-Young is a Haligonian currently studying at the University of Ottawa. She writes about nature, travel, and social phenomena.

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