When mean girls go digital

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Rosalind Wiseman's bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes struck a raw nerve with parents around the country when it first came out seven years ago. Wiseman's frank discussion of Girl World opened up what had been a hidden topic - how girls use social status as a kind of weapon as they build friendships throughout adolescence. The book also inspired the 2004 movie Mean Girls, which had a happy ending when all the previously mean girls turned almost nice.

But real life is rarely so simple. Two years ago, Wiseman realized that many of the problems she described in her book were only getting worse with the wider use of increasingly sophisticated technology, especially texting and social networking. She recently released an updated version of Queen Bees that offers savvy advice on how to handle such tricky new issues as online bullying and "sexting" -- texting sexually explicit images and messages. Both books are based on Wiseman's experiences as an educator traveling around the country helping parents, teachers, and teenagers navigate the social storms of adolescence.

We asked Wiseman for some rules to help parents guide the teenagers in their lives who are growing up in two worlds, one real and one virtual.

1. Be a good role model.

Parents often complain that their kids are texting all the time, Wiseman says. But consider the source of many of those messages. "A kid is texting 3,000 times a month and a good chunk of it is the parents texting the kid," she says-often with pointless messages that the kids learn to treat like white noise. "If you actually have something of content to say, they won't see it," she says. Parents also set a bad example when they do things like bring their Blackberrys to the dinner table. "We're not recognizing our own role in this," she says.

2. Work with the schools.

Wiseman says schools have to be part of the solution, even though many educators claim they can't control what goes on outside the classroom. "What has gone on outside school walls has always impacted what goes on inside the school walls," she says. "That has always been the case." If administrators don't get involved, they send a message to students that "it's Lord of the Flies out there," she says. Educators are often on the front lines in the battle to teach kids to use technology ethically, Wiseman says, as they try to track down everything from cheating rings to smear campaigns against particular students. Parents should support school administrators who try to accept this responsibility and push those who don't to step up to the plate. "There can really be shining examples of parents and school administrators working together," she says.

3. Set clear limits.

Parents should explain to their kids that using technology is a privilege, not a right, Wiseman says. That means that it will be taken away if it's used to humiliate or embarrass other people. Adolescents, especially young teens, don't understand how quickly things can get out of control. She advises families to set up "technology contracts" that establish specific bans against, for example, using another person's password or identity without her consent or creating or participating in insulting Web sites or blogs. The punishments should be equally specific. A first violation would mean revoking computer or cell-phone privileges for a certain period of time. A third violation could mean removal of a valued possession, like an iPod. Both parents and kids sign the contract, Wiseman says, which means that both have agreed to abide by the rules.

4. Use privacy strategically.

Many parents struggle with how to respect their kids' privacy in the age of technology. Should they read e-mails regularly or even just once in a while? Should they check their kids' phones to see who they have been texting? Wiseman says parents should tell their kids that they will occasionally be checking to see what they have been doing online and will also be scrutinizing the phone bill. "I think that giving kids a little bit of paranoia is a good thing," she says. "Otherwise they think there are no brakes on this." She says parents shouldn't be obsessive about these "reconnaissance strategies;" a daily check would be too much. But there are some specific occasions when it's smart to be proactive. If you're going out of town and your daughter isn't coming along, monitor cell phones and Facebook pages to make sure an unsupervised party isn't in the works. And if her behavior is causing concern and she won't talk about what's on her mind, then you have to do a little detective work to find out what's happening.

5. Don't put all the blame in one place.

In a typical sexting scenario, Wiseman says, an eighth- or ninth-grade girl sends an explicit picture of herself to an older boy. In minutes, that picture is circulated among a large circle of kids and may eventually be posted on a Web site. The girl is humiliated and if her parents find out, they are furious. But who's really at fault here? Wiseman says parents need to understand that technology enables girls to do things they would never do in person-like baring their breasts to a boy they hardly know. But the ease of clicking the cell-phone camera and pressing "send" creates a new hazard. "As parents, you have to remember how much girls, especially eighth- and ninth-grade girls, want attention from boys," she says. "The girls who do this have this kind of temporary suspension from reality. They really do believe it is going to be private." Everyone involved in this enterprise should be held accountable, she says. "We don't hold responsible the kids who take it and forward it," she says, "and I think the forwarding is worse than the doing."

Raising teenagers has never been easy, but technology adds another layer of difficulty. Wiseman's essential message-and it's an important one-is that parents have to engage with their kids in all their worlds. "They're looking to us for what the rules are," she says. Whether it's Facebook or face-to-face, respect for others never goes out of style.