Vermont Mom: In A World Of Cyberbullying And Sexting, It's All About Trust

May 25, 2016

Being a teenager is hard enough. There are awkward hormonal changes, increasing academic pressures, and seismic shifts in relationships in and outside the home. But today's teens have an additional challenge: the ubiquitous presence and lure of social media, smartphones and other technologies that allow gossip and rumor to go viral at the touch of a button. 

Parent Co., a digital publication based in Burlington, explores and offers advice on these topics in a series that looks at how parents and schools too often fail to address the impacts of social media, particularly when related to sexting and cyberbullying. Writer Angela Arsenault, who blogs about these issues for Parent Co., joined VPR to talk about teens and social media.

On how cyberbulling is different

“One of the biggest problems is that it is impossible to escape. If it's happening to you, it's happening all the time. You can't just leave school and kind of leave it behind, gather yourself and face it the next day.”

On how parents can help their teen deal with the new realities of social media

“Make an effort to be resilient … if your teen is not at first responsive to having these open conversations, have them anyway. And to know that your words, even if they aren't being instantly received, they are finding a way in. You know, they're going to leave an impression. And to keep sort of a long-range view about your impact as a parent and know that studies have shown that children, kids of both genders, want to be able to rely on their parents for information about these sort of things.”

On being comfortable with discomfort

"Before you assume that your child is tuning you out, make sure that you haven't actually tuned your child out to some extent. As parents, I think a lot of times were timid about certain subjects. We're scared to ask the really hard questions, especially maybe about sexuality, or even bullying, sometimes because we're afraid of the answer, or sometimes because no one ever showed us how to have that conversation. Maybe we didn't have that conversation with our parents.

"I think it's OK to also show that you don't have all the answers. The last thing I would want to do is kind of overwhelm parents with this idea that you need to be completely comfortable with these topics."

On helicopter parenting

"Helicopter parenting, I think, is a product of a sincere wish to keep our kids safe, and we just have to make sure as parents that we keep it in check. And that applies here as well because our tendency is to check our kids' phone or check their computer or demand access to their text messages, their Snapchats. But that sending a message to them that you don't trust them and you don't respect their privacy ... Understand that it's important to model for our kids that they have a reasonable expectation of privacy and that builds a stronger trust between parent and child."

On the abundance of sexting

"The most concerning thing to me about sexting is that kids often don't even really consider the long-term implications. But I might even actually take that back and say that's my second biggest concern, and my first is that parents think this is extremely abnormal or really scary … I think there has to be [an] explanation that not … you know, your desire to do this is shameful, or you shouldn't want to do this, but because this is not the safest way. Once you hit send, it's entirely out of your control."

On what schools can do better

"I think schools are a great place to look for help. But our sex education curriculum has been for a long time largely abstinence-based. We tend to put all the love side of things on girls and the lust side of things on boys. It sends a very unbalanced message. So if there could be kind of a grand overhaul, or even a tiny district-by-district overhaul of sexual education in the United States, I think it would be a tremendous place to start."