Many of my conversations with my kids about safety have focused on how to deal with “in-person” threatening situations. I’ve talked some about cyber-bullying, especially since we live near where the Phoebe Prince bullying took place, but not really about online threats.
And then Monday happened.
Our small, upscale college community of Amherst, Mass., was upended Monday when a Facebook post stating a student was bringing a gun to the high school campus came to light. The threat to the school was discovered on a “Confessions” page set up by one of the students at the high school and was pretty direct.
An investigation by school and town officials concluded that the student in question had not carried, nor had he intended to carry, a gun into the school. At a community meeting Monday night, the superintendent of schools said she discovered the post during one of her regular checks of the Facebook page.
These “Confessional” pages appear to be the latest rage among high school and college students. UMass Amherst, where I teach journalism, also has a “Confessions” page.
But the existence of the high school’s Confessions page, and more importantly the tone and nature of some of the posts, raised a whole new set of questions about the safety of my children.
Are parents and administrators doing enough to prevent bullying?
How do we deal with children who are clearly in pain but feel their only outlet is anonymous posts on Facebook?
Do we want these Confessions pages to continue to exist?
I live with my three children in a small town outside of Amherst – one of several towns that feed into the Amherst Regional High School. My son attends the high school and was aware of the Facebook page – as were teachers, administrators and, obviously, other students.
Parents like myself – and I consider myself fairly savvy when it comes to social media – were unaware of the site, and that can be dangerous.
The page’s administrator says “Hate will be ignored” at the top of the page and those who post remain anonymous, but if you want to comment or “like” a post, your name appears. The page is littered with angst, immature comments and some personal attacks (mostly against teachers). But there are also some very clear cries for help. One student even posted a comment about how lonely he was and how he needed friends.
While it was nice to see a bunch of students jump in and offer to help this kid, it was clear that he needed some professional help.
So, what to do?
The future of the Amherst High Confessions page remains up in the air. Some parents at the community meeting wanted to keep the page up so that they could know when kids are struggling. Others I’ve spoken with see the page as a place that can hurt rather than help.
Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, told Reuters last year that: “It’s another creative venue where kids are able to say hurtful things, and that’s frustrating.”
I’ve suggested that perhaps a parent moderator might help in dealing with posts that address clearly weighty issues. I’ve spent my career practicing and teaching journalism, so I’m hesitant to cut off the free speech rights of teens and say such pages should be taken down either by Facebook or local school districts. But as parents, we need to actively be monitoring sites like these – or whatever replaces them.
The advice here is simple: Talk to your kids, talk to their friends and talk to other parents. Granted, it can be overwhelming. There is so much technology out there and our children pick it up quickly and easily. Parents today juggle a lot. But being aware of these sites and monitoring them as frequently as possible puts all of us in a better position to help intervene and prevent something awful from happening.