A New Landscape: When My Son Was Harassed Online I Was Faced With A Difficult Question. Do We Support & Project Youth In This Changing Landscape?

Our kids live in a completely different world than the one I grew up in. They are exposed to more advertising, adult content, violence and aggression through various sources of media. The filters adults once used in order to preserve the innocence of children has dwindled. Shielding them from the massive amounts of noise the world exudes has become more and more difficult with the invention of social media.

Communities have changed and we have replaced our front porches with decks in our backyards and car garages in our front yards separating ourselves from our neighbors. We no longer look out for each other the way that neighbors did in the 80s and 90s, and the days of children roaming the streets armed with their imaginations with the primary rule to be home when the street lights come on are gone.

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When I look at my son I sometimes feel sad for him that he never got to experience the joy of having a friend randomly knock on our door and ask if he can, “Come out to play?” When I reflect on my own childhood, and all the exploring that I did with my friends in the neighborhood, the reality often hits me that if I were to let him do this now it would be deemed child abuse.

I learned a lot on my adventures as a child. When I fell down and hurt myself I learned to get up and deal with it. When my friends were being jerks I learned how to resolve the conflict. I also became aware of the boundaries that my parents set for myself and my brother, pushing them as far as they would go on some days and facing the consequences when I pushed too far.

(Image from Stranger Things)

The question I now face as a parent, is how do I help my child maneuver a new landscape while giving him the freedom to make mistakes and learn resiliency?

I will admit, this new landscape of parenting is a bit difficult some days and the internet makes the conflict much more confusing. An example is what happened to my son this last few weeks when it came to bullying.

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My son has been dealing with severe depression for the last three years. Recently he has been put on an anti-depression that not only changed is life for the better, but saved it. His depression created anxiety that was so intense it made it difficult for him to socialize outside of the house. After moving to a new city it was difficult to integrate ourselves into a new community that supported us the way we were used to.

My son’s friends are primarily online and are a couple years older than him, but they love the same games and spend hours laughing hysterically over their experiences. These relationships were built over two years and although they sometimes ran into conflict, they would always find a way to resolve the situation.

As his friends entered the teenager stage of their lives things started to change. They all go to the same school in the States and my son is known as, “The Canadian” of the online group. One of the kids is a bit more selfish than the rest and although I don’t think he is a bad kid, he is a little misguided.

My son offered him the password to one of his games temporarily so that he could experience playing it. When he was ready start playing it himself my son changed the password and informed his friend. His online friend was really upset and things escalated quickly. His “friend” began harassing him. Any time they were in a game with the group he would start sending him messages:

jefferery-5 KYS means Kill Yourself.

When my son started to block him on the games and not respond it escalated to this message that my son was able to copy before the young boy deleted it.

“yo just want to let you know there’s no report button, no mute button, no block button in real life. I want to see your glance as I smash your skull into the fucking concrete, and I strangle the life out of you, pushing my thumbs into their eye sockets until you cry blood lol. well, not before forcing you to watch their beloved ones die in front of you.”

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As an advocate for youth, anti-bullying and anti-harassment I was not cool with what this kid was writing to my son. I knew he didn’t understand the consequences for his actions and that this was a perpetual issues in the new landscape our children belong. My son in response looked up the criminal code for the city the boy lived in and sent it back to him.

I did call the police but found there was really nothing we could do because we were in Canada and he was not. My son dealt with the situation really well and told his friends that he understood that they were friends with him but no longer wanted to be included in games and conversations where this person was present. This was difficult for him to do on some level because he really enjoys playing with the others but he informed them all that until he started his medication he was suicidal and that speaking to someone this way could push them over the edge.

The question remains; How do we keep our kids mentally and emotionally safe in this rapidly changing world? How do we keep them morally in line and checking in on their interactions with other people? More bluntly, how do we make sure our kids aren’t being assholes?

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One thing I think we need to realize is that every single one of our children are capable of making big mistakes and testing boundaries when unsupervised. We may think they are telling us the whole truth, but when you think of your own childhood, did you tell the whole truth?

The second thing is that how are we mirroring the way we would like our children to interact with others? Do we teach them empathy and discuss different outlooks on life? Do we ask question that may make us uncomfortable in order to insure that they don’t already have their own (mis)interpretation of the information they have been exposed to?

In this new complex landscape how do we hold our children accountable?

When I watch the ongoing conversation of sexualized violence, bullying and harassment in the world of adults I have to ask the question, are we holding ourselves accountable? How are we contributing to the landscape we have created for our children? These are questions that leave me breathless and confused, I can only imagine how our children feel.

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