“Sure enough, I had a parent come to my door and say, ‘Your daughter has been saying some rather nasty things about my daughter on this website.’”
– Patti Thrift, Mother
High school students have always spread gossip in the halls, on the walls and on the phone. Now, it’s on the Internet, too. On various message boards specific to communities around the country, kids write about whom they hate, whom they think is pregnant or has an STD and record other often hurtful rumors that may or may not be true.
Sixteen-year-old Jessica remembers once when some kids at her school wrote cruel things about her on the Web.
“They were just making fun of me,” she says. “You know, she’s really ugly, she’s this, she’s that, ba-ba-ba.”
Jessica’s 11-year-old sister, Emma, admits she’s used the Web to write nasty things about another girl, though she regrets it now.
“After a while, you’re like, how could I have been so mean? Like, why did I do that?” she says.
The other girl’s father eventually became so frustrated with what Emma had said that he came to her door and demanded her mother make her stop.
Experts say gossip on the Internet can be more harmful than the old-fashioned kind. It’s often anonymous because kids use fake screen names. It has the power of the written word, so it lasts longer and is taken more seriously. And, unlikely ugly words on the bathroom wall, there’s no way to scratch it out.
“Online gossip is to hearsay gossip probably what nukes are to dynamite,” says Dr. Ramah Commanday, a school psychologist. “It can get EXTREMELY raunchy.”
If your kids are victims of online gossip, Dr. Commanday suggests putting the gossip into perspective.
“Point out to them how what’s being said on the screen differs from what everyone knows about you as a person,” Dr. Commanday says.
You can also try what worked for Emma: Keep your kids off the offensive website!
“When she was using it all the time, her name was on there all the time. People were writing things about her,” explains Patti Thrift, Emma’s mother. “Since she has no longer had access to that, she’s no longer a topic of conversation.”
Experts say that any time your child is on the Internet, you should know what he or she is doing there. Online gossip is just another reason why.
Tips for Parents
Most of us remember passing notes during class or swapping stories over lunch with our friends in middle and high school. But with more teens accessing the Internet these days, it appears that gossip has gone high-tech. Teens are using message boards, instant messaging and even email to air out their frustrations – often in hurtful language – about their teachers and peers.
According to an Internet Report from the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, 97% of kids aged 12 to 18 access the Internet on a regular basis. What they’re doing on the Internet, however, may be surprising. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that approximately one in every 17 kids is threatened or harassed while using the Internet. In fact, most don’t tell their parents or other adults, and if they do, the adults often don’t know how to stop the online teasing.
Gossiping, whether it’s in the halls or on a message board, more often than not leads to hurt feelings. According to the Nemours Foundation, if teens spend enough time gossiping and passing on stories they don’t know are true, eventually no one will believe anything they say, even when it is the truth. Teens who gossip shouldn’t expect to be trusted ever again. Once friends learn that a peer can’t resist spreading secrets around, they won’t tell him or her anything personal. And if a teen gossips about personal or important issues, he or she could even end up in trouble at school and at home. Teachers don’t appreciate students who make it tough for other students to learn, and parents won’t be happy to hear that their child is causing trouble in school.
If you’ve heard your teen taking teasing and gossiping to a hurtful level, it’s time to remedy the situation. The experts at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota offer the following advice for curbing your teen’s gossiping and teasing:
- Cultivate your teen’s compassion. Talk to him or her about feelings – how emotional blows can hurt as much as physical ones. “You wouldn’t throw a rock at that boy, would you? So you shouldn’t call him a ‘zit-face’ either.”
- Give your teen a simple test he or she can use to judge if his or her teasing is playful or hurtful: “How would I feel if someone said this about me?”
- Talk to your teen about the when and where of playful teasing. He or she shouldn’t always resort to sarcasm or jokes at someone else’s expense in order to get a laugh.
- Examine your own behavior and that of other family members. Do you rib your children at length, even after they plead with you to stop? Do you tease inappropriately, that is, about the way people look or the habits they have? Are you confusing razzing with teaching and discipline – for instance, do you communicate your frustration about your teen’s messy room by calling him “Mr. Slob”? Make sure that your own teasing (and that of everyone else in your household) is good-natured, not aggressive or manipulative.
As a parent, it is also important to regulate how your teen uses the Internet. If you know what your teen is doing while online, you can better prevent him or her from visiting message boards where the temptation to gossip exists. The Media Awareness Network suggests considering the following questions concerning how your teen surfs the Net:
Are you involved in your teen’s online activities? Do you know what he or she is doing and whom your teen is talking to when he or she is on the Internet?
Does your family have a set of rules or an agreement for appropriate Internet use?
Do you make Internet use a family activity by guiding your teen to good sites and teaching him or her how to do safe, effective searches?
Have you taught your teen not to believe everything he or she reads online and to check online information with an adult or with another source?
If your teen has her or his own website, have you checked to make sure it doesn’t contain harmful or hurtful information?
Have you talked to your teen about responsible online behavior? Does he or she understand that making threats or harassing others online can be considered illegal activities?
- Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota
- Media Awareness Network
- Nemours Foundation
- UCLA Center for Communication Policy
- U.S. Department of Justice