Monitoring kids' online behavior could save their lives

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Just last year, a 12-year-old male cheerleader in Northern California decided he had had enough of the taunts and bullying that had tormented him for years, and he took his own life.

As a community, we grieve together in the face of such a loss. The pain endured by the boy's parents is unimaginable. We are a community dedicated to raising healthy, happy children.

Unfortunately, too many of our children suffer silently. If we are to assist our kids in navigating the often-painful challenges of growing up today, we must better understand a central area of their life — their online world. A child's online world can be a source of his or her pain, but it can also reveal valuable warning signs.
Most parents are shocked to eventually discover that looks are deceiving when it comes to their teenagers. In 16 years as a clinical psychologist for adolescents, I consistently see kids create two personas — one that they share with adults and the second underground persona that consists of drugs and alcohol, sexting and sending naked pictures, bullying and electronic suicidal references.

Countless times in my career, educated, well-meaning parents have sat in my office and uttered the words, “I had no idea.” Parents who don't monitor texts and online exchanges miss 75% of what is happening in their kids' lives.

Parents need to monitor what their teens are doing online. Not just kids who are being bullied, but all kids.

Even if you think you can trust your children, you can't trust the people around them. And you would be shocked by what kids say to one another online.

On the social media site, teens are able to post comments and questions anonymously to anyone else. One of the more popular comments I hear from my patients is, “You should just kill yourself.” One of my patients said that following such a post, he received another that read, “Why are you still here? Kill yourself already!”

Many warning signs of suicidal thoughts can be seen at home: changing eating or sleeping habits, avoiding social situations, bullying siblings or pets and making comments such as “I want to kill myself.” But many of the warning signs of suicidal ideation exist exclusively online — from the mean social media posts that push kids to the brink to Google searches such as “how to commit suicide.”

Monitoring online behavior sounds invasive and exhausting. But parenting a teen takes more energy, effort and monitoring than is needed to keep a toddler's fingers out of light sockets.

Teens have partially developed brains. This increases their impulsivity, especially when overwhelmed by painful situations.

Bullying is a learned behavior that is deliberate and repeated and establishes a power imbalance. If you suspect your child is being bullied, go to the school. Many schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. Do not confront the other kids' parents. Often instead of solving the situation, such confrontations exacerbate the problem.

If the bullying persists, go to the police. Many police departments have an Internet division for issues of online harassment. I've seen persistent bullying stop abruptly after police show up at a kid's door.

Bullies are burdened with emotional pain. If your child can grasp this and think about what might be happening in a bully's life, your kid will be less affected by the bully. If a child does not react to the bully's behavior, it forces that individual to move on to someone who will.

This shifts the power back to your kid, which is where you want it.

Dr. Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist and adolescent specialist.