ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week, we've been reporting on the ways children interact with technology. Sometimes that interaction unfortunately, involves children getting bullied online. That was the case of a 12-year-old girl in Florida who committed suicide earlier this year. She had allegedly been the target of intense bullying on the social media site Ask.fm. Some law enforcement officials are warning parents about the site.
But for parents, keeping track of the latest social network can be a game of whack-a-mole, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: On September 9th, Rebecca Sedwick climbed a tower at an abandoned concrete plant near her central Florida home and jumped. Shortly after her death, Sedwick's mother, Patricia Norman, told the local Fox News affiliate her daughter had been bullied on social media.
PATRICIA NORMAN: We deleted her Facebook but there was many messages on there where people were sending her messages, telling her that she should just go kill herself and everybody hated her and nobody liked her.
SYDELL: Norman told Fox 13 that she moved Sedwick to a new school and thought she'd gotten her off of social media. But without Norman's knowledge her daughter found new sites, among them Ask.fm. The European-based company lets teens post questions and answers anonymously.
Mike Harris talks to kids in schools as part of his work with the district attorney's office in Jefferson County, Colorado. He says he's hearing complaints about Ask.fm and not just from parents.
MIKE HARRIS: The students are complaining saying that this is a really bad site, a lot of bad people with ill intentions and just very cruel people.
SYDELL: The Jefferson County Colorado DA's office just sent out a warning to parents about Ask.fm. It noted that several teen suicides in the last year happened after the kids were bullied on the site. In an e-mail, Ask.fm told NPR it's responding with new features that make it easier to report and block abusive comments. Harris's advice is for parents to keep better track of where their kids go online.
HARRIS: Grab those phones, the smartphones, see what apps your kids have. And there's a lot of iPhones that you can actually restrict them adding certain apps or any app.
SYDELL: But restricting what your kids do online may not be the answer.
DEVON WARNER: I did try to do that and I discovered that the child knew how to get beyond them.
SYDELL: Devon Warner is the mother of a child who might be considered the perfect target for bullies. He's 15-year-old now, transgendered and has a mild form of Asperger's.
WARNER: When your child has a special need your heart's on your sleeve or it's in your throat.
SYDELL: But when Warner realized she couldn't stop her son from going online, she chose a different way to protect him.
WARNER: My goal is to teach him how to buck himself up and how to look at the situation in a way where he can be at peace with other people, 'cause people are prejudiced and they're angry and they're cruel and there's all kinds of stuff. And I don't want him to think that's about him.
SYDELL: Warner's strategy seems to be working. I met her son, who goes by the name Warner Sechovec, at a cafe near their home in San Francisco. I asked him how many social networks he uses.
WARNER SECHOVEC: Well, I used too many to count.
SYDELL: Sechovec does use Facebook and Twitter. He says he's an editor on Wikipedia and he has an Ask.fm account. He says he has occasionally has been the target of bullies.
SECHOVEC: I'm trying not to take it too personally, but sometimes I can't help but do.
SYDELL: But Sechovec says he's experienced more bullying from kids he knows in real school than online. And online, he often finds people and sites that help him feel better about being transgendered.
SECHOVEC: It's great to look at stuff that's actually supportive and has more of a positive attitude toward it. I spend a lot of time on the computer. Sometimes the computer's like one of the only friends I have.
SYDELL: And being on social networks for teens and kids is about friends, says 18-year-old Jennalynn Sallings. When she was 14, Sallings had a secret MySpace account. Sallings says she and her friends needed space away from the prying eyes of their parents.
JENNALYNN SALLINGS: We need a sense of privacy. Like, everyone needs their sense of privacy and how else are we going to grow if we're feeling like we're locked up?
SYDELL: Jennalynn Sallings' mother, Noelani Sallings, discovered her daughter's secret account and forced Jennalynn to show her everything. Noelani Sallings now regrets it.
NOELANI SALLINGS: I personally should have given Jennalynn a little bit more room to experiment with what she was doing because I was so involved in school and other various aspects of her life.
SYDELL: Sallings thinks it's more important to talk to kids about how they use social media and about bullying in general. Her daughter Jennalynn agrees.
SALLINGS: Banning things from any teenager will just make them want it even more and just teaching them how to use things well and teaching them how to have that thick skin and understand that a lot of these people saying mean things have nothing better to do with their time.
SYDELL: Sallings says she tried Ask.fm a few years ago and saw people were too mean so she stopped using it. But Sallings says her generation is pretty inured to all the nastiness on the Internet.
SALLINGS: We've all grown up with it, and it's like, we're used to seeing such obscene things that our sense of, like, obscene is less.
SYDELL: It's notable that despite the rise of social media, the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory reports that teen suicides have trended down since the early 1990s. After the death of her daughter, Florida mom Patricia Norman told local news media simply that her message to parents was not to ignore their kids. Even if they seem fine, still check up on them.
That seems like a message that all parents can get behind. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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