A few weeks ago, my 8-year old son came to me and said, “Dad, can you help me with something?” I said, “Absolutely.” He led me over to the family computer, and he explained to me that while he was playing Roblox, this “other guy” was being really uncool. I asked him to tell me what the player was doing, and he said, “Let me show you.”
For the next 20 minutes, the two of us watched as this player proceeded to ruin the game for everyone else. My son explained that in this level, there was a special item that afforded players a lot of power. Because this “other guy” player had this special item, he had the ability to fly, create anything, or destroy anything. He was using this power to ruin the experience of other players, including my son.
At first, we just watched. We talked about what steps we could take to stop the bully from behaving this way. Then we took turns trying to get the item away from this guy. Finally, we decided it was time to report the other player. The entire time, I was able to coach my son through the steps necessary to identify online bullies. We talked about the fact that this player was negatively influencing the experience of other players and that this behavior is not OK. We talked about how it is normal to get frustrated and upset when we are personally affected by this kind of behavior but that reacting negatively to someone else’s bad behavior didn’t help make things better. We talked about how bullies exist everywhere and why they do what they do. Finally, we talked about some ways to handle bullies in a way that keeps our own integrity intact. After about 20 minutes of talking and playing the game, my son simply said, “This isn’t any fun anymore. I’m going to find a different level with cool people.”
The interesting thing about this experience wasn’t the steps we took to try and solve the problem or the fact that Roblox has some minor kinks to work out in their game. The most important aspect was that I had an opportunity to parent my child in real-time.
In the Schools
This is an important distinction to make. Bullying is certainly not a new phenomenon. Most of us have been part of schoolyard bullying in one way or another during our childhood. And today more than ever, our children go to school each day and encounter bullies on the playground, in the hallways, or in the lunch room. Our kids are in situations without direct supervision, and their best hope is a teacher or school employee that is probably horribly underpaid and attempting to watch 78 kids at the same time. It’s difficult for kids to know how to maneuver these social situations, and more importantly, how to walk away with their self confidence and integrity intact. Besides, the bullies at my school were exceptionally good at not getting caught. It always seemed to me that they were specially trained at the bullying arts.
Flash ahead to 2013: we have hundreds of online games and worlds for kids and more bullies than we did at school. Rather than the 5 bullies on the playground, we now have hundreds or thousands of bullies online. We also have immediate access to information and entertainment, a large amount of which isn’t ideal for kids.
But with this access to so much online content and interactions, we also have the opportunity to be involved with our kids while they play online. We have the chance to monitor their social interactions, coach them through difficult situations, and warn them about the dangers they might not otherwise be able to identify. We can play with them or periodically check to see what they are doing. We also have the ability to talk with them about bullies while they are getting bullied rather than hours afterwards when they have no interest in talking about it.
Although the internet can often seem like a swamp of unfiltered content boiling over with bullying, pornography and sketchy people, it can also be a great place for kids to have fun and to learn. The key is to be engaged in our children’s online lives and to teach them what it means to be a good online citizen. Our children are being shaped by the content they see, the experiences they have, and the social interactions they are a part of, both online and in real life. We should embrace the opportunity to be as engaged as we can in all aspects, and we can hope that the lessons we can teach them online and in real-time will translate into their real-life encounters as they continue to navigate through fun, difficult, educational experiences.