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Parent, educator and mental health and online safety advocate
On October 10, 2012, Carol’s daughter Amanda died by suicide after relentless exploitation online and cyberbullying. Carol has committed herself to being the voice that Amanda never had and continuing the important conversation that Amanda started with her now widely viewed video detailing her experiences and feelings.
October 10 is World Mental Health Day. To commemorate Amanda’s life and to continue raising awareness about the struggles so many kids like her experience, Carol created Light Up Purple. Every year on October 10, Carol urges people to join her in wearing purple to mark this important day and inspire continued conversations about mental health and well-being. _
When I speak to educators, parents and kids in classrooms, I hear a common theme. They know about the issues online with social media, cyberbullying, self worth, self-image, consent, privacy and screen time. The list goes on. But now they want solutions. What can they do? What are the most trusted resources? How do they prioritize digital well-being in their everyday lives?
Based on my personal experiences and what I’ve learned from all of the amazing adults, youth and children I’ve spoken to in the nine years since Amanda’s passing, I narrowed down the action items to the five most important. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. But to me, doing these five things on an ongoing basis can help to improve your digital health significantly.
When it comes to cyber awareness, digital health and well-being, knowledge really is power. Educated adults can better navigate their own digital lives and model healthy behaviours for the kids in their lives. They are also better equipped to have hard, uncomfortable conversations. It’s important to identify reputable sources of information, like TELUS Wise (other great sites include MediaSmarts, Cybertip.ca and Kids Help Phone). Visit those sites often. Sign up for the newsletters. Subscribing to Google Alerts with applicable key words including cyber safety, digital wellness, cyberbullying etc. is also a great way to stay up to date. You don’t need to read everything. Pick and choose -- but at least you’re accessing that type of news regularly. The context is changing every single day, so it’s important to be familiar with the latest news. All of these sites also have resources for kids. Sitting down together and reading articles, doing activities or taking online safety quizzes are great productive uses of screen time.
It can be scary to talk about the darker side of the Internet. But they are such vital conversations. If you feel really uncomfortable talking about sexual health literacy and personal safety issues common in the digital world, I recommend practicing the conversations with other adults. And allow yourself to be honest and vulnerable with the kids in your life. Explain to them that it’s hard to talk about, but stress the importance of muddling through the discomfort together. Today, we have to normalize these types of conversations. With kids, I also stress the importance of having a circle of safe adults in their lives. Sometimes because of cultural, language or religious reasons, kids find it hard to talk to their parents about these things. And sometimes parents just refuse to talk about them or can’t be calm communicators and listeners because that’s just not in their natures. It’s essential to have other safe adults to talk to openly.
“No” can be a really hard thing to say, even if everything inside you wants to say it. We have a lot of concerns around the word no. For instance, if we say no, maybe people will like or love us less. We may feel badly or guilty or worry that we’re making too big of a deal about something. For kids, it can be especially hard to determine what is and isn’t ok and validate their own feelings. I try to make it real. I ask kids: if you are online and someone is asking you questions, how does it make you feel? Does your stomach get tight? Does your chest get heavy? Those are things they can identify. Then I help them associate and name feelings that are typical of those sensations, such as anxiety, worry, concern or fear. It is hard to set boundaries to something that is unknown to you. You need to have had the experience, either in real life or simulated with safe adults. Once you’ve had the experience, you can honour it and honour yourself with a boundary if it comes up again.
If you are having any negative experiences online or offline, it’s important to rely on the safe adults in your life as sounding boards and resources for compassion and help. If Amanda knew that she wasn’t alone, she would probably be alive today. Nobody is alone. There is always someone out there who can help you with whatever problem or situation you are having. Connect to people that can support you without judgment and can hold space and listen. Keeping negative emotions or experiences inside only strengthens the shame and spirals the bad feelings. Even though at first it may feel hard or embarrassing to open up, in the end, it’s a positive thing to ask for help if you are struggling.
Develop a digital wellness action plan. What are my goals? How am I going to achieve them? Who is going to help me? Where do I go if I’m stuck? Digital wellness aligns with physical and mental wellness. So it’s important to focus on things like eating well, sleep, physical activity and finding balance with the time you spend online. Being digitally well is a lifestyle choice. It’s an ongoing awareness. It’s a value system that starts when kids are really young and gets reinforced consistently.
Technology is all around us and is not going away. This generation of kids is digitally native. It’s all they know. And it’s ok too that sometimes our kids know more than us about how the digital world works on certain levels. Even with how connected we are, there is still room for board games, outdoor activities and conversations around the dinner table. Adults must model healthy behaviours and habits. Kids learn from what they see. Showing them how digital well-being comes alive with awareness, boundaries and open conversations will go a long way to helping them understand and take care of their own digital health.
Join in the conversation about building and maintaining a healthy relationship with technology for better digital well-being by participating in the TELUS Wise Happiness Workshop (geared to grades 9 – 12).