On October 16, 2006, Megan Taylor Meier, of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., received one last message from Josh Evans—a boy she had met on MySpace—that allegedly read: “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a $^%^ rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.” Minutes later, Meier hanged herself in her closet. She was pronounced dead the next day.
The world would later find out that “Josh” never existed. He was a cruel joke started by a woman named Lori Drew—the mother of one of Meier’s former friends. Drew, her daughter and an employee of Drew’s company, created the character of Josh Evans as a way to gain Meier’s trust and to later humiliate her. Meier took the bait, in the belief that “Josh” liked her.
Cyber bullying comes in many forms and happens over every social network. Today’s preteens and teens have access to many sites that can be used as a tool to bully and harass, all while allowing the attacker to remain anonymous. Meier’s story is not unique. Many teens and pre-teens have suffered vicious cyber bullying attacks by peers that led the victim to believe that the only way out of the haunting horrors and reputation assassination caused by the online attacks was to take their own life.
In a February 2015 study that polled middle-school students (ages 11 to 15), 34.4% of respondents reported they had been the victims of cyber bullying in their lifetime. In addition, 21% reported that within the last 30 days, they had been the victim of at least one cyber bullying incident.
But for many parents, cyber bullying is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Internet. Social media sites, instant messaging apps and gaming sites are popular tools child predators use to find their targets or groom victims. Statistics on internet sexual victimization are staggering. In 2015, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tipline “received 4.4 million reports, most of which related to: apparent child sexual abuse images, online enticement (including sextortion), child sex trafficking and child sexual molestation.”
Policing the Internet can be difficult when today’s children and teens have a technological prowess that outshines their parents. However, keeping children and teens safe is not an impossible feat, and parents wanting to stay on top of the kids’ online profiles and presence can follow these seven simple tips to internet safety:
- Passwords are not private. For younger children, parents should set the password for email or other accounts. For pre-teens and teens, there should be no secrets about passwords.
- Talk to children about what information is ok to share online and what is not ok to share. Personal information—phone numbers, addresses, school info, etc.—should NEVER be shared online.
- Pictures on the internet are forever. Sharing photos is fine, as long as they are not inappropriate or revealing. Teach children and teens what defines appropriate content for photos. And remind them that even silly and innocuous photos are forever. So warn children to be careful about posting.
- Ask before adding friends. Set a rule that new friends on gaming sites and social media sites should be discussed before being added. Classmates and regular friends need not be discussed, but new names and faces warrant an approval.
- Set restrictions on computers and internet sites. Many sites and internet browsers allow parents to set up restrictions for children about what can be viewed online.
- Be a friend as well as a parent. Parents should follow their kids or teens on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram and “friend” them on Facebook and gaming sites. Don’t stalk or smother, but use the social media sites as a way to stay connected and aware.
- Be internet savvy! Parents should educate themselves about the Internet world. Understand the meaning of text abbreviations and computer slang and learn the basics of using social media.