Internet Safety Month – Q&A with Dr. Justin Patchin

ASKfm is celebrating Internet Safety Month in June with a Q&A series offering different perspectives on some of the most-talked about issues relating to teens being smart and safe online. We kick things off here with a conversation with cyberbullying expert (and ASKfm Safety Advisory Board member) Dr. Justin Patchin to separate the truth from the hype when it comes to the biggest digital safety risks for teens today, how and when to broach the topic of digital safety with your kids, and his worst mistake on social media.

What are the biggest mistakes you think users, particularly teens, make when it comes to online safety?

We still see so many cases where students post online and are shocked when someone who they didn’t intend sees it. So they need regular reminders. My advice to teens is to just assume everyone’s paying attention to everything you put online and act accordingly. The mistaken advice that often comes up is people say things like, “don’t use this platform or that platform,” or “restrict yourself to your five best friends” – that advice is not realistic. Social media is meant to be social; tools and practices are baked in to these services to expand the network and adolescents are hard-wired to expand their own social circles. They just have to do that responsibly and with awareness and not put too much out there without concern for potential consequences, the worst of which are typically edge cases.

“Sexting” is an example – 20-30 percent of all kids report to researchers that they have sexted. It’s fairly pervasive. And we all know the potential consequences are pretty bad (arrest, prosecution, sex offender registration). Yet, the likelihood teens will meet with any of these is extremely low. We can’t scare teens with these examples. We have to have a more educational, fact-based approach.

What is the biggest safety risk on social networks today?

People will see something about you or something you say that reflects poorly on you in terms of getting a job, getting into school, things like that. These are not serious risks in terms of harm, but the most likely consequences. Stranger predators are much more serious, but the likelihood of that actually happening is minute. There is a chance if you go out into a thunderstorm that you will get struck by lightning. But odds are much higher that you will get wet.

So, are people focusing on the wrong thing in terms of what the true dangers are for teens online?

They have been. Ten years ago the focus on stranger predators was extremely misplaced. We collectively (with the help of the media) still focus on edge cases – and we should continue to expose those, but not necessarily draw conclusions based on these cases, then extrapolate those to the general population. That is a dangerous thing to do. Again, education is key here: educating teens and educating parents as opposed to assuming the worst or hoping for the best.

Online bullying is a hot topic with parents and schools today – why so much awareness around this? Are kids “meaner” today than they were in the past? 

No, they’re not. I see as much extreme hate as I do extreme kindness from teens online, frankly. What’s different today is we’re seeing firsthand, in graphic detail, the experience of being a teenager. When I was growing up, very few adults witnessed when I was being bullied or picked on; today we can actually see screenshots of these behaviors. The data on teen violence is a little mixed, but whichever way you interpret it, it’s a stable or even downward trend – certainly not increasing.

Is a certain amount of bullying behavior almost unavoidable when giving kids a public forum?

Bullying isn’t normal, but conflict is. Part of the issue is here definitional – young people will disagree and there are going to be peer problems. That’s just the nature of adolescence. The problem is when those issues are not addressed appropriately, right away. Making sure minor incidents of conflict don’t escalate into major incidents of bullying is the critical part.

Why do teens/people in general gravitate toward anonymous features? 

They are concerned about others watching and micromanaging what they’re doing online. Even something that’s as mainstream as Snapchat – its ephemeral – doesn’t feel as permanent as Facebook. It’s the permanence and the parenting factor; on a site like ASKfm or using an app like Snapchat, you feel freer to express yourself in different ways without having to worry – at least not as much – about how people will judge you tomorrow.

Now, kids do continue to use sites like Facebook and actively connect with adults in those environments. But they also want environments with no adults around. It’s like the conversations I had when I was younger, playing basketball or just hanging out with my friends – I didn’t want my parents listening in. Not that we were necessarily doing anything wrong or talking about anything that our parents hadn’t discussed when they were kids. We just wanted some privacy. This is similar.

Have you ever personally done something that you regretted on social media? 

I actually broke two of my own rules last weekend. One is never to read the comments on online media articles and the second – and more important one – is to never comment on these things myself. I did both! But in general, I am sure that I have been unkind to people online in the past. Usually in anger or frustration. I wish I had more patience when it comes to interacting with others online. The fact that adults still struggle with this should be a reminder when dealing with youth who make mistakes online.

How do you talk to kids about Internet safety? At what age do you think it’s appropriate to start talking to kids about their behavior online?

I recommend establishing an open dialogue with your child early  – even before they are exposed to technology. When they are nine, ten and eleven years-old, they still listen to their parents. Once they are fifteen and sixteen they may not, so the groundwork you established earlier is what you’re relying on.

Most parents still really don’t know the technology all that well. They don’t know about ASKfm or how it differs from Facebook or other social media sites – but they do know common sense, like how it is not a good idea to post your cell phone number or to send a picture of yourself half naked to someone. So, I don’t spend too much time telling parents to learn the individual platforms. Instead, I tell them to focus on responsible behaviors generally. They can ask their kids about the specific apps and sites and why their kids like them. Ask them who they interact with, and why. It’s an ongoing conversation as opposed to flipping out over a single moment and taking away a phone for a month.

What should parents do if their kid becomes a target for cyberbullies?

The absolute first thing is to show support, be there for them. Make sure to keep all evidence, and if it is someone from their school, the school should be notified and involved right away. The number one goal is to get it to stop, and parents should work with schools to make that happen. But the number one thing through it all is to express to your child you are on their side.

ASKfm Safety Advisory Board Member Dr. Justin Patchin is co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and top author and researcher on the intersection of teens and technology, with particular focus on cyberbullying, social networking and sexting. He is also the well-respected author behind “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral,” written for teens, and “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying” which was named Educator Book of the Year by ForeWord Reviews.

To download the Cyberbullying Research Center’s Top Ten Tips for Parents, click here. For more tips and resources for how to talk about and stop cyberbullying, visit the Cyberbullying Research Center.