Reprinted from the Growing Up In a Digital World issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (1), pp. 10-12
The tragic story of Amanda Todd not only changed my life as her mother but affected the lives of so many others. Amanda died by suicide on October 10, 2012. In the YouTube video she posted we all found out about her struggles with mental health, bullying and cyberbullying in addition to being exploited online by a predator who resides in the Netherlands.
This person has now been convicted of the following criminal charges against Amanda: extortion, importing and distributing child pornography, possession of child pornography, communicating with the intent to lure a child and criminal harassment.
Much of Amanda’s bullying occurred through the channels of the internet with her peers. Cyberbullying, or what I call cyberabusive behaviours, spread quickly and viciously. When Amanda became victim to this, she was unable to run away or hide. The online harassment was brutal and ongoing and followed her wherever she went. It was easy enough to say, “ignore it,” “it will stop” or “delete your profiles,” but we all know those words don’t really work. In Amanda’s case, those weren’t the answers.
Then there was the online exploitation—what we now call sextortion. Sextortion is a form of blackmail.² The RCMP defines it as “a situation where an online relationship evolves to the point where the suspect, whom the victim has only met online, requests the victim perform a sex act during an online video chat.”³ The suspect then tells the victim they have recorded their interactions and makes demands and threats to release the video and possibly harm the family if the victim does not comply.
Ensuring that our children are safe online includes understanding how technology works, why privacy online is important, what online behaviours are appropriate and who to trust in both the online and real worlds. When I speak to educators, parents and children and youth, digital awareness is on the forefront of conversations. They want to know about social media, cyberbullying, self-worth, self-image, consent, privacy, screen time—the list goes on. They want information, and they also 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’ve narrowed these areas down to five action items I view as most important. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. But to me, doing these five things can help improve digital wellness significantly.
Action 1: Stay educated
Knowledge of digital wellness, well-being and safety really is power. Educated adults can better navigate their own digital lives and model healthy behaviours for kids. This will also allow us as adults to be better equipped to have many of the hard, uncomfortable conversations about topics, like online exploitation, that need to be talked about.
It’s important to identify reputable sources of information (like those included in the Related Resources list). Visit these sites often. Sign up for their newsletters. Subscribe to Google Alerts with applicable keywords, including cyber safety, digital wellness and cyberbullying. You don’t need to read everything. Pick and choose. But at least you’ll be accessing this type of news regularly.
Introduce times to read news articles with your kids and talk about “real” versus “fake” news. Review how to look at facts and determine if they are plausible. Doing activities or taking online safety quizzes are great, productive uses of screen time.
Action 2: Have open conversations
It can be scary to talk about the darker side of the Internet, but these conversations are vital. If you feel uncomfortable talking to children about sexual health literacy and personal safety in the digital world, I recommend practising the conversations with other adults. Allow yourself to be honest and vulnerable with the kids in your life. Explain that these topics can be hard to talk about, but stress the importance of muddling through the discomfort together. We have to normalize these conversations.
With kids, I also stress the importance of having a circle of safe adults in their lives. Sometimes kids find it hard to talk to their parents about difficult topics. This could be because of cultural, language or religious barriers; relationship dynamics; or because parents just refuse to talk about these topics or struggle to be calm communicators and listeners. It is essential that kids have other safe adults in their lives whom they can talk to openly.
Practise scenarios with your kids about what they might encounter when using the internet and stress that when something online doesn’t feel right, they should tell a trusted and safe adult.
Action 3: Set boundaries
No can be a really hard thing to say, even if everything inside you wants to say it. We have a lot of concerns about the word no. For instance, if we say no, maybe people will like or love us less. We may feel guilty or worry that we’re making too big a deal about something. For kids, it can be hard to determine what is and isn’t OK. Setting boundaries for something unfamiliar is especially hard.
I try to help students understand how their bodies react to certain feelings. 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? Then I help them associate and name feelings typical of those sensations, like anxiety, worry, concern or fear. By validating their feelings, they can learn to trust themselves in identifying what is and is not OK. Practising this with a safe adult gives kids the experience they need to set boundaries.
Action 4: Reaching out to others
If Amanda knew that she wasn’t alone, she would probably be alive today. Nobody is alone. Kids need to know there is always someone out there who can help them with whatever problem they have. The same is true for adults. If you are having negative experiences online or offline, it’s important to connect with people who can support you without judgment.
Keeping in negative emotions or experiences only strengthens shame and lets bad feelings spiral. Even though it may feel embarrassing to open up, in the end, asking for help is a positive thing.
Action 5: Take action
Develop a personal digital wellness action plan. Start by answering questions like:
- 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 your plan should also include things like eating well, sleep, physical activity and finding a balance for your digital activities. Being digitally well is a lifestyle choice. It’s a value system that starts when kids are really young and gets reinforced consistently throughout life.
Technology is not going away. This generation of kids is growing up surrounded by digital technology. It’s all they know. And it’s OK, too, that sometimes kids know more than us about how the digital world works. Even in our digitally connected world, there is still room for board games, outdoor activities and conversations around the dinner table. Kids learn from what they see. Adults must model healthy behaviours and habits. 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 wellness.
- Canadian Centre for Child Protection: protectchildren.ca
- Cybertip.ca: cybertip.ca
- ERASE (BC Ministry of Education and Child Care): www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/erase
- Kids Help Phone: kidshelpphone.ca
- Media Smarts: mediasmarts.ca
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC): missingkids.org/theissues/sextortion
- NetSmartz: missingkids.org/netsmartz
- Protect Kids Online: protectkidsonline.ca
- Telus Wise resources: telus.com/en/wise/resources/all/online-safety
- Thorn.org: thorn.org
About the author
Carol is a global advocate for anti-bullying, cyber abuse, digital safety and mental health. On October 10, 2012, Carol’s daughter Amanda died by suicide after relentless exploitation online and cyberbullying. Carol is committed to being the voice that Amanda never had and continuing the conversation Amanda started with her now widely viewed video detailing her experiences.¹ Carol is Coordinator for Supportive Technologies and Digital Literacy for School District 43 (Coquitlam)
- Learn more at www.amandatoddlegacy.org and find Carol on Twitter at @c_todd
- Cybertips, a program of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, offers detailed information about sextortion. See cybertip.ca/en/online-harms/sextortion
- See rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/news/2018/sextortion-a-thing-need-know