The popularity of social media has allowed young people to re-introduce themselves to their friends, meet new friends, and connect with family. They can literally share moment by moment their joys and challenges with many people as opposed to phoning just one.
But there’s a dark side of social media that invites secret worlds and societies where predators lurk and disguise their identity to gain confidence and in turn coax naïve children, teens, and young adults into dangerous situations with the offer of friendship, money, or even sex. The ‘home invasion’ is innocuous; it happens without knocking on their front door – the parents don’t know that there is a vicious intruder in their home.
Social media has also become an outlet for bullying, shaming, and intimidation. The ‘mob mentality’ takes over, and several hundred people can mock and harass, where in the past you only had to worry about a few.
Young people are sending provocative videos and photos to their boyfriends/girlfriends, assuming that no one other than the intended recipient will see them. However, there’s no guarantee that the videos and photos will not wind up in the hands of someone who will exploit them (sexploitation). In less than a minute, a video or picture can be shared with one person, and within seconds, what was intended as private has now become viral, altered and distorted into what is known as a meme.
The result: Your child’s ‘private’, ‘intimate’ photo is now part of pop culture, and you have no control over how it is seen or how it is distributed.
It is too easy for anyone—especially a youth unaware of consequences—to get caught up in the world of social media and have your reputation damaged because of one post, photo, inconsiderate, or threatening comment. Young people have the option to ‘live out loud’ but it doesn’t mean that it is the best option or that there shouldn’t be limits. All it takes is for one person to get a hold of the ‘personal’ photos or videos and life can be ruined; colleges and universities and prospective employers are now using the internet as an additional means to perform a background check where one wrong post can seal the fate of a promising future (1).
In addition to cyberbullying, finding ways to cope with turmoil in the home is another challenge for many young people.
It isn’t easy to go to school, and have a ‘normal’ childhood when your family support system is breaking down. Especially if it is already broken and you’re pretending that everything is okay and you have the perfect family. If the youth has a good friend, the friend may share with their parents what is going on with the troubled friend, and as a result, the parents may offer to feed them anytime they are hungry or a place to rest from time to time.
From there, mentoring, comfort, and unconditional support and possibly love may be given and will help the young adult get their life on track. Or if they can’t stay with friends, maybe through research and/or referral, they can find information on outreach program for kids who are abused, homeless, or are deemed uncontrollable. The Children’s Shelter and Youth Empowerment & Support Services are two examples of organizations that provide support and emergency shelter for youth who are in crisis situations and need sustenance. If they are unaware of the resources that are available for kids in crisis or they do not have extended family member with whom they can stay, criminal activity, drug use/abuse, or forming their own ‘families’—gangs—could be seen as another viable option.
Gangs are for many kids as a way to set up and to provide a familial/patriarchal/matriarchal society where there is a ‘head’ or leader who controls everything while providing a sense of belonging and stability, albeit a dangerous and counterproductive one.
The reason for turning to gangs is not cut and dry. However, many kids join to feel connected to others, the lure of financial gain, or to find respite from difficult family situations, while others join to feel safe because they live in communities where doing so is mainly for protection (2). Also if a child’s parent is a member of a gang, the likelihood of being indoctrinated is extremely high. This is an unfortunate consequence living in communities where poverty and the gang subculture coexists. The option to choose who you want to be is limited by violence, weapons, and constant aggression (3).
If however there is a parent, mentor, or other adult involved in the child’s life, they may seek help by contacting the National Gang Center, one of many great resources for answers on how to stay connected with their kids and possibly keep them from joining gangs.
Young people have so many great things to look forward to in their lives but it is not a given that they won’t face any obstacles as they grow and enter adulthood. Although it is normal for them shut down or assert their independence, parents cannot let them disengage from the family to the point where they have no idea what they are doing online or who they are friends with. So while it is important for parents to allow their children space to experience life to the full and express their personality, it is also imperative that they let their children know that their wellbeing is their number one priority.
Young adults who are victims of sexual abuse, violence, or parental neglect are likely to resort to suicide as a means to control their destiny. Pay attention to your teen, and if you notice anything different about their behavior, don’t just assume that everything is okay. The more time you spend with them, the better it will be to distinguish between what is normal behavior and behavior that is erratic.
For more information on teen bullying and suicide: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/index.html
Here is a CNN London video report on one case of cyber-bullying that lead to teen suicide.
Photo credit: CNN screen grab of video