Can you give some background on yourself and 2-1-1 of the Big Bend‘s role in our community?
Our mission at 2-1-1 Big Bend is to provide assessment, emotional support, crisis assistance, education, training, and referrals with accurate, up-to-date resource information. We do this largely through the hotlines we answer, as Helpline 2-1-1 is available 24/7 to the greater Tallahassee area just by dialing 2-1-1. We have been around for over 40 years, helping people find resources that can assist with food, child care, etc and by counseling and supporting people that may be experiencing a crisis.
My job is to train all of our hotline counselors, promote our services to the community, and provide trainings and workshops to external organizations. I have been with 2-1-1 for eight years, and really enjoy seeing the impact we make on people’s lives.
Based on your experience as the Outreach and Education Coordinator at 2-1-1 of the Big Bend, can you tell us how often your counselors talk with parents who are concerned about their children’s activity online? How about children or teens who have concerns about their own online activity?
Hotline calls about children’s online activity are fairly rare, but the calls that do come in tend to be serious. We frequently get calls from parents who are generally worried about their children’s behavior and relationships, and online activity does come up from time to time. Parents can feel overwhelmed, may not understand all the social media platforms, and can sometimes back away when they are dealing with something like social media that they’re not experienced with. I’ve taken calls from parents who noticed a message that their child, or a friend’s child, has posted online that mentions self-harm or suicide, and the parent isn’t always sure what it means or how to interpret the post.
The background statistics are illuminating, and, unfortunately, I imagine that they just show the tip of the iceberg. Sexual abuse is such a taboo topic that people, especially young people, may be afraid to speak up. That’s why the work that Lauren’s Kids and all the sexual assault centers do is so important in getting the message out that it’s okay to tell.
Parents are often unfamiliar with the different online communities their children frequent, such as Instagram, Reddit or chat rooms, so initiating conversations about safety on these online platforms can seem difficult. What are some tangible steps parents can take influence positive online interaction? How do they get these conversations started?
Great question. I would suggest a couple of things. First, parents can make sure that they have access to any social media websites that their children use, including having their children’s user name and password. I can understand that parents want to also respect their children’s privacy, but these social media sites are often open to the public, and so it is helpful to see what your children are posting, what pictures are posted, etc. Second, if you don’t feel knowledgeable about social media, it’s time to learn. Start with a Google search or ask your friends and neighbors what they do. Of course, talk regularly with your kids about what websites they visit, why they choose those sites and whether or not there is anything about those sites that makes them uncomfortable. Do more listening than talking, but parents can let them know that it’s okay to tell if they see something strange or are asked to do something that makes them uncomfortable.
Talking with your kids about online activity also shouldn’t come with a ‘one-and-done’ approach where you have one conversation about it and then that’s it. This is a topic that parents can bring up repeatedly and as needed. Parents can follow-up on previous conversations to make sure that their children are being safe and following their rules.
I don’t think there’s a correct or one-size-fits-all approach to getting these conversations started. It may seem daunting and feel uncomfortable to you, but a little awkwardness is okay. Just like talking to your kids about drugs or alcohol may seem uncomfortable, it is still something where the importance of the topic outweighs any awkwardness.
Going off of the last question, talking to your child about these potentially embarrassing situations can sound very overwhelming. What advice would you give to the parent who suspects that their child might be going through some of these struggles, but doesn’t know how or what to ask?
I would tell those parents to trust your instincts and talk to your child. There’s little to no downside to talking to your child, even if nothing is going on, children often appreciate the concern (even if they won’t come out and say it) and will understand that their online activity is important to you. If a parent is unsure of what to say, then plan it out. Write out what you might say, bounce some ideas off your partner, plan out how your kid may react and what you would do then. With something this important, a little bit of planning can go a long way in making a parent feel prepared and confident in having these conversations.
These conversations can also be referred back to over time as you keep talking to your kids about their online activity. You can ask your children for their ideas on what they can do to stay safe online and follow-up with them to see if they are following through on what you talked about.
After learning about what a child has been going through, we often think “how could I have missed the signs?” While some situations are more obvious than others, what are some signs of distress parents and caregivers should be looking out for in their children?
Parents know their children best, and I would encourage parents to trust their instincts: if they feel like something is wrong with their kids, they’re usually correct. Beyond that, any sudden or dramatic changes in behavior, excessively talking about harm or death, or losing interest in activities they’ve previously enjoyed can be signs that something is wrong. Like so many things, prevention is key. Speaking openly and honestly with your kids and frequently reinforcing that they can come to you with any problems are good ways you can learn about any problems before they grow into larger issues.
What resources does 2-1-1 Big Bend provide for parents, children or teens that have further questions and young people who might be facing these issues right now?
Our best resources are our hotlines and the counselors who answer them. We’re here to provide short-term counseling, and can also connect parents and children with longer-term counseling or any other service agency they may need. We’re not going to judge people or tell them what to do, but our counselors can help callers sort through their options and come up with a plan for staying safe. If a parent or teen is unsure of where to turn to for help, we can also point them in the right direction. Just dial 2-1-1 and there’s always going to be a counselor there to listen to you and to help.