The Internet is an amazing way for us all to connect and share, for kids to grow and learn and be exposed to things that they might not if left only to our “Real” life and non—technical devices.
I am not against this kind of connection, in fact, I am quite a fan. I do, however, conceptualize the Internet as a tool, not a toy. Like a car, if you don’t know what you are doing or screw around too much, really bad things can happen.
In terms of technology, as adults, our experience is different: We were taught social skills, manners, communication skills, then had to generalize those things onto our technological and online lives when the Internet hit. Ultimately, it is up to each of us, as parents, to help our children make good choices, both online and off.
This is what parenting looks like in a digital age; helmets, vegetables, sunscreen, and good, digital citizenship. But our offspring have had a lot more tech shoved down their little throats than they have had a chance to develop the etiquette that goes along with it.
Most adolescents use their devices and social media for most of their social interactions. From asking people out to turning people down, making jokes, exploring aspects of the personalities, learning about the world, vying for attention and even being mean to each other – statistically, screens are almost always involved with almost all teens.
So, whether it’s an inappropriate photo posted by a spiteful ex, or some other bullying issue that took flame, OR a well-intentioned or ignorant faux pas or moment of inappropriate behavior caught on video by a bystander, the chances of something backfiring, biting them in the a** or going “bad viral” is huge.
It can be devastating for a young person (and their family) when personal or damaging information is made public in these ways. Reputations can be tarnished, lives can be turned inside out, relationships destroyed—the impact is almost always negative.
Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the damage (both for the offender and the offended).
Delete their post
Whether your child produced and shared intimate or embarrassing information about themselves that was shared without their consent or a case in which your child behaved badly, and a bystander caught it on video, it is a good idea to attempt to reduce the damage done by removing the problematic post.
It is sometimes possible to delete a post, though can be very difficult—oftentimes impossible to delete any reshares or uploads or memes that have already happened.
Involve their school.
Most every school has a code of conduct and philosophy and stance around bullying. This has become a big conversation in the last decade, with most schools taking a “Zero tolerance” stance. Unfortunately, there are still many schools in which they have yet to consistently add the word “Cyber” in front of the word “Bullying”.
Regardless, schools have a responsibility to make reasonably sure that the children in their care are protected from hazards and harm. It can be argued that this does not extend to their personal lives outside of school, however in the case of student behavior, whether or not pictures or videos were taken, altered and disseminated during the school day, if the parties were students at the same school or school-sanctioned event, and what steps the school had (or had not) taken to prevent the behavior from happening is significant.
Additionally, schools should be tasked to have a point person students can talk to about targeted and harming behavior from other students – even (especially) if that behavior happens online.
Help them take legal action if possible/ appropriate.
On most any responsible, social media sites – if the viral post was borne from a bullying situation, you can report it as abusive. Especially, if your child is underage, (and especially if the images happen to contain nudity) the site should be motivated to have them removed relatively quickly.
Additionally, you can contact the police if you know who posted the image. This is important in the cases of nude images and/ or threats of any kind, as there are legal issues associated with those behaviors.
Help them navigate the stigma
It will be critical for your child to stand their ground. Socially, speaking the worst thing they can do is isolate themselves. Continuing to engage in regular activities and classes, and not letting the posts or paparazzi terrorize or victimize them is important — not simply with regard to the specific incident, but in terms of their own ability to weather social storms and stay strong. Well—trained therapists can help.
Stand behind your kid
Whatever the reason for your child’s “bad viral” outbreak, they are likely going to be embarrassed, ashamed, even scared.
As parents, we are tasked at this point with putting on our poker face, swallowing our judgment, and being a safe place for them. I cannot emphasize how hard this can be in the moment (especially if the situation involves crime, behavior that clearly goes against your family’s values or your child being nude). There will be time later to process their choices, and speak about boundaries, values and “What the he** were you thinking?” In the early stages of a situation like this, they need to know they are safe, that it will pass and that you are there for them. I cannot emphasize how important that is.
Speaking of emphasizing and important, this DOES NOT MEAN shield your kids from the natural consequences of their behavior.
Do not shield them from the natural consequences of their behavior.
Zero parents want to see their child, screw up, be laughed at, ostracized or perhaps even arrested. But swooping in to put all the blame on others (when the situation has been co-created) or deflecting the consequences (when consequences have been earned), ultimately prevents our kid from learning a likely, much—need life lesson, thins their skin, stifles their maturity in general, increases an inaccurate sense of invincibility and entitlement (or worse, both) and makes it much more likely that whatever mistakes they made — whether sending a nude pic to that hot guy in their math class or a gross, public display of cultural ignorance, MUCH more likely to happen again.
Instead, respond appropriately.
In the case of shared personal information – not poor public behavior, but words or images that were meant to be private but have been shared and are now causing problems, many times the best response is no response, and typical cyberbullying protocol is appropriate.
But when it is a situation involving bad public behavior. The rules are different. One, significant difference is that doing nothing will likely make the situation worse.
Damage can be lessened in these situations by leaning into the storm (hard to do), addressing what happened before it gets any bigger (harder still), and working to control the flow of the narrative by taking charge of the story.
Initially, remember; Swift, Same and Don’t feed the flames.
Swift: Time is of the essence. At the very least, best practices dictate releasing a brief statement acknowledging the mistake, and a short apology within 24 hours is best. This shows awareness and responsibility.
I recommend soliciting feedback from an adult, third party who is not “in it” in the same way you are; a boss, a trusted friend, community leader or therapist — someone who can be as neutral and honest as possible to prevent you from posting something that may come across as flip, defensive or inflammatory.
Depending on the size of the screw-up, the number of people impacted, the reach of audience and the level of consequence, another (longer) apology will likely be needed – though another day (perhaps two) of drafts and proofing is a good idea.
Same: If it was a three-thread tweet that caused the problem, one Instagram post is not gonna cut it. If it was a 20 minute YouTube rant, a 280 character apology tweet is not gonna fix it. Don’t apologize on Facebook for something gone viral on Instagram.
Staying in the same medium, and giving (at least) as much energy to the apology as the offense itself – is most likely to reach (and to influence) those impacted (and those responding/ resharing).
Don’t feed the flames: Fail to find yourself in a flame war on social media. After your initial apology is sent out, unplug for a bit. DO NOT read the comments – some people will support you, others will not, if you are a functioning adult you already know this – reading the impulsive and cathartic rants from mostly—anonymous and insulated throngs is not going to change that or do you (or your kid) any good when you are already under a good deal of stress.
How you respond can make an enormous difference in how hot and fast the flames of a bad viral situation burn. Both your child and the public will be looking to you (as the adult representative) to act as a mediating voice of responsibility, reason and perspective. If that response is inappropriate, violent or more of what made the post problematic in the first place (‘phobic/sexist/racist, etc.), you will draw down even more justified, social outrage and natural (slash deserved) parent—blame than was already occuring.
Do whatever you can to not allow this to happen. If you think you cannot help your child respond without making the situation worse, then enlist the help of someone else who can. When something terrible hits the fan, it’s far better to just unplug the fan than fling more terrible into the blades.
Focus that energy on your kid, on solidarity within your family, and on starting those conversations around boundaries and values mentioned earlier.
Then work together to stick to those values as you move forward to the next steps, making sure your responses are clearheaded and filled with integrity, not panic and rage.
Help them acknowledge their mistake
Above all, focus on responsibility. Young people sometimes need to be reminded that it even if they didn’t intend to hurt, humiliate or harass someone does not mean they didn’t.
If they hurt someone’s feelings or offended someone, did something that crossed the line of OK or seemed rude, shared personal details that someone trusted them with or posted something racist, sexist or ‘phobic – they need to fix it.
No excuses, no minimizing, no “But, someone else”—ing, no explaining to others why they shouldn’t be upset (see above re: making things worse). No one ever died because they simply took responsibility and apologized.
Teach them when (and when not) to respond.
Saying nothing (particularly a ‘No comment” if the press has become involved) can make you look guilty, like you’re hiding something or validate what the critics are saying.
That being said; haters gonna hate, trolls gonna troll. If someone is calling your child names, is focusing on their character rather than their behavior, or is clearly just using the situation to vent their own angst, a response from them/you will not be necessary or helpful.
Instead, focus any responses on comments that contain legitimate feedback, concerns or questions. Use them as opportunities to let the audience learn of your family’s standards and values, to explain that this situation is out of character for your child and remind them that your child is human and flawed, just like the rest of us.
DO: Help your child own their mistake, as soon as possible, stay as respectful as possible, stick to the facts and lead with the heart. Again, do this WITH your kid, not FOR them.
DON’T: Go on and on, over—explain or invite more responses. Don’t try to “Win” or “Prove a point” or “Get in the last word”. Do your best to not get baited, get defensive or let your pride get in the way.
The truth is their friend.
Whether your kid has been wrongfully accused or misunderstood, OR has violated our social contract or crossed a line of some kind; stick to the facts. Facts will outlast the hype and overpower the drama.
And do not encourage or allow them to lie. Just don’t do it. The Internet is a powerful resource — the truth is out there, and if your kid hasn’t learned it yet, convince them that poor behavior online can (and likely) will come back and bite them in the feed.
Help them apologize
There is power in apology, and the best way to help your kid repair their reputation, undo the damage and regain trust is by saying they are sorry.
The audience wants a response, likely deserves one, and it is your duty as a parent to help your child provide an appropriate one.
The first, three parts of an apology in the digital age are;
Admitting what they did. DO NOT allow your child to be afraid to say the words. Apologizing for “What I did” or “What happened last week,” is not enough. Be clear about what you are apologizing for.
Sharing their own feelings about the impact their behavior had on someone else. It is called empathy, and this is the part in which they say they are sorry. Never, ever, under any circumstance let them say they are sorry”…that someone was offended/ you were upset.” That does not end well.
Showing they understand why it was wrong. Showing that the situation has affected you as well, and that you have grown from the experience goes a long way.
Other factors that can come into play in these situations;
If your kid already knew it was wrong, and chose to do it anyway — then apologizing for that is important as well.
This is a global village, and we all have varying degrees of privilege which can play significant roles in human interaction – both online and off. Generally speaking, the more white, male, straight, cis and wealthy you are, the more privilege you have. It is important to call out the role privilege played in your situation, if the goal is for your kid to actually apologize in a respectful, adult way.
Make it right
Notice how “Ask for forgiveness” wasn’t on that list? Instead of asking for forgiveness, it is more responsible for your child to explain what they are going to do be the kind of person someone could forgive, and offer a plan to make it right.
Because, the fourth part of a legit apology is not about asking something from the person that has been wronged, but about explaining to them what you have learned/ how you have grown and what you are going to differently moving forward.
It’s the difference between apologizing to make oneself feel better, or apologizing to make someone else feel better.
It is not enough to simply apologize/ lay out a plan—anyone can tweet, or cry on camera. What makes a difference is calling out a solution to the problem we caused, and then showing we are a person of our word.
There will always be those who will not believe a sincere apology, won’t be satisfied with your restitution and will still feel hurt or angry, but by forming and executing a thoughtful and well-intentioned restoration effort, you (and your kid) will be able to say you did the best you could to right the wrong, change the narrative and do better next time.
Except in extreme circumstances, reputations will improve over time – particularly for the young, who have many years ahead of them of (hopefully) doing the right things and balancing out their scales.
It may take time to live down a soiled rep (and/or media frenzy), but it will smooth out eventually. Use that time to slow down, take a step back and focus on your expectations for your child’s behavior — both in real life and online.
Take the opportunity to help your child recognize these universal truths; that everyone makes mistakes, that our behavior impacts those around us, and (because of our technology) that we are more easily and widely connected to each other than we have ever been before.
And that we need to act accordingly.
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