See below for an interview with Tina Meier of the Megan Meier Foundation. Tina talks about suicide, bullying, online safety, and more.
CyberBully Hotline: When you were raising your daughter Megan, you did everything you were supposed to do as a parent when it came to monitoring her internet use – and yet, she still got into trouble because of a threat that you couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. How can parents keep their kids safe today when the threats are growing in number and it’s impossible to predict the future?
Tina Meier: A lot of parents ask me this question. People say, “You did more than any other parent I know, and still – look what happened.” And I did do everything I thought was right. The difference was, at the time, MySpace, instant messaging, and all of that technology was really new. And all I thought about was sexual predators getting on there, portraying other people, and trying to lure a child. I don’t think – and if there’s anybody who could beat themselves up about it, it would be me – there was anything else I could have done, because I did every single thing to protect her.
I think in today’s world, we have a better opportunity to start at very early ages, educate kids about technology, and treat it the same way that we treat “stranger danger.” The problem is, in real life, you deal with disappointments, you deal with ups and downs, and you sometimes feel like no one gets you. Kids especially feel this. They think, “My parents don’t get me, my friends don’t get me, school doesn’t get me – no one gets me.” But online, they can be another person. They can have people accept them. And they connect so quickly because they feel like the people they meet online get them, and they shut down to the idea that someone could be fake. I’ve seen it happen to adults even after this happened to Megan!
We need to talk to kids about being safe online just like we talk to them about sex and drugs and not texting while driving. And we need to monitor the technology they use. Set computers and mobile devices up in open spaces from a very early age. You’re not going to be able to keep them away from devices forever, but especially in elementary and in middle school, really try to keep all of that stuff in the open so that when things do happen you can see it and talk to your kids about it.
CBH: The trend of assuming an alternate online identity has a relatively new nickname – a lot of people are calling it “catfishing” today. Not everyone who does it has sinister intent – for example, a person who has body image issues might steal someone’s pictures and use them as their own – but other people are out to play with people’s feelings. What would you say to a young person who uses a fake or a stolen identity to socially network online?
TM: First, I understand in our world that sometimes we feel like we’re not good enough to be who we are – that people won’t accept us because of the way we look, or the things we like. But when you start pretending to be somebody else, you start losing a part of yourself. You lose who you really are and how unique you are and the positive things that you’ve got.
Second, on most social networking sites, impersonating someone else goes against the Terms of Service – you can’t do it. And cyberbullying laws are now on the books in many states, so if you’re harassing someone, cyberbullying, stalking, etcetera, you could be breaking the law.
You have to understand that you can really hurt someone by impersonating someone else. And if someone hurts themselves or winds up taking their own life because of you, the guilt that you would live with would be a prison sentence. I truly hope that kids who want to “catfish” stop before they do it and think about the other person. I want them to think, “That could be Megan,” or “That could be someone I know.”
CBH: In your opinion, what are the biggest threats to young people online today? What sites and apps are of most concern to you?
TM: The one we’ve heard about the most lately is ask.fm, but there’s also Facebook, Twitter, and now Vine and Instagram. All of these can potentially be dangerous to a kid who is struggling with self-esteem issues if they are used negatively against them. Tumblr sometimes can be a huge issue. Kik Messenger is a new one that has been having a lot of issues. But things pop up every day, and any time kids get on their mobile devices, gaming devices, or any other electronics, there is the potential for negative interactions to escalate because it’s easier to bully people electronically.
CBH: You speak to people all over the country about your experience, and you receive countless e-mails from parents and students. What are the questions and comments you get most frequently, and how do you respond?
TM: When I give in-person presentations, the biggest question I get from both parents and students is, “Did (the adult who cyberbullied Megan) ever apologize?” And I say no. They want to know if they still live down the street, and I explain that they did move. They want to know if the adult was ever prosecuted and if she went to jail, and I go through all of those things. And people get really frustrated – people say, “She’s not in jail? What?” And I have to explain to them that the justice system doesn’t always give us the justice that we want.
From parents, I receive questions about the struggles they’re going through with their own kids. They don’t know what to do, and they feel like no one listens to them. Their child is withdrawing, their grades are dropping, they’re not eating, they don’t want to go to counseling, and parents get petrified because of what they hear in the news. So what we try to do is calm them down and listen to them. Even when you just repeat what someone has said, they feel like you’re really listening and not blowing them off.
With kids, they want to know all about Megan and what happened. And for middle or high school kids, I answer very honestly. I don’t sugarcoat or lie because everything they would want to know is out on the internet. If I lied to them, then I’m not valid at all, and they would look at me I’m just one more adult that blows them off and treats them like they don’t know anything. So I’m very open and honest with them. I think that’s important.
CBH: Bullying and cyberbullying seems to get more and more vicious as time goes by. We’ve lost too many kids to suicide, and too many incidents of bullying are happening in our communities despite increased awareness of the problem. What gives you hope that things will change?
TM: One positive that I see is seeing that many schools are taking proactive approaches to preventing bullying and suicide, and they really are trying.
Also, I do a lot of presentations to students, and kids will come up to me and say things like, “I was bullied in middle school and was thinking of taking my own life, but then I heard your story. I saw the pain in your eyes, and I realized I couldn’t do that to my parents.” Those things, gratefully, are more common than not.
Another positive is that kids are standing up to bullies. There was one school where a student went on Instagram and created an “ugly list” where they posted pictures of students and called them horrible names. The great thing there was that hundreds of students responded to that cyberbully and told them to stop. They would say things like, “You don’t know that person! They’re beautiful inside and out!” Or, “Why would you say that?” Or, “What a jerk! Don’t say that about them!” To me, that is phenomenal, because if we can get those kids to stand up against bullying, it will make those kids who would cyberbully others think twice about doing it.
I know that it will take time for things to change. But right now we’re focused on educating kids. We’re really trying to reach the kids coming through preschool, kindergarten, and elementary – those are the kids we have a huge chance to work with right now so that when they get older they have more understanding and empathy. And with the middle and high school kids, we’re trying to get them to make good choices and think about consequences and their future. We wouldn’t work as hard as we do at this foundation if we didn’t have hope that things would change.
The CyberBully Hotline can be used to help students report bullying, harassment, suicidal thoughts, and more. Click here to learn more about the CyberBully Hotline.