Alyssa Morin

Local expert teaches Redondo parents about cyberbullying

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Safely Ever After’s Pattie Fitzgerald visited Washington Elementary last Thursday to discuss cyberbullying.

Safely Ever After’s Pattie Fitzgerald visited Washington Elementary last Thursday to discuss cyberbullying.

Kids today live as much in the virtual world as they do in the “real” world, but often they do not fully grasp the threats they face online, including cyberbullying.

To arm themselves against the dangers that kids may face online, more than 60 students and parents gathered at Washington Elementary’s cafeteria recently to get cyberbullying advice from local expert Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of the Santa Monica company Safely Ever After.

“You can’t avoid technology,” Fitzgerald told them. “It’s not optional. Kids now are digital natives; they are born into it and they are good at it. But they are not good at navigating the implications of their virtual world.”

“The largest and most common risk for kids online is cyberbullying and harassment,” Fitzgerald said.

“And even good kids sometimes do it. So many parents think, ‘Not my kid.’ Sometimes kids who are nearly perfect in the real world act out online.”

Cyberbullying has been at the forefront of national news lately with high profile cases like the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year old Florida girl who had been bullied online for over a year before taking her own life last year. She was barraged with texts and online posts from peers saying, “Why are you still alive?” and “Go kill yourself” in the days leading up to her death.

“Parents have to be involved in their kids’ online lives,” Fitzgerald said. “Children’s brains don’t fully develop until they are in their twenties. They don’t have a full grasp on risks and consequences. We have to understand that they can’t help some of the behavior unless we teach them.”

The level of cruelty kids like Sedwick’s bullies showed shocked parents, Fitzgerald explained. And it is reported that 88% of children ages 12 to 15 have witnessed cruelty and harassment online. She attributes the epidemic to emotional disconnect that kids experience from behind their computers.

“Because kids aren’t looking into the face of who they are bullying they don’t get how much they are hurting them,” she said. “The have a reduced sense of empathy, a false sense of bravado and a distorted sense of reality.”

The good news, Fitzgerald said, is that parents don’t have to be tech savvy to teach their kids about online safety.

Fitzgerald answers a mother’s question about online bullying. Photos by Alyssa Morin.

Fitzgerald answers a mother’s question about online bullying. Photos by Alyssa Morin.

“We keep looking for a technology fix to keep our kids safe online,” she said. “While filters and monitors have some use, it’s a humanistic approach that will work best to protect your kids. The same skills we teach kids in the real world apply to the internet. They need to be taught empathy and the implications of their actions.”

Fitzgerald urged parents to start the online safety conversation with their children at a young age and to set up clear guidelines about internet usage.

“You can help by setting up ground rules,” she said. “Just like real life, you have to understand what they’re doing and where they’re going. Get familiar with the sites they are on. Agree to check their messages periodically. Even Google their names from time to time.”

Other online risks Fitzgerald addressed included sexting, sharing personal information online, sharing passwords and chatting with strangers. All of these risks, she said, can be mitigated by talking openly with kids about their online lives.

“It all comes down to monitoring their usage and teaching them comprehension, compassion and consequences.”

For more information about cyberbullying and other online dangers, visit safelyeverafter.com.

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