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Erin Barton has tried to teach her children – Tai, left, Isabelle and Noah – about online dangers without scaring them. 'The point is not to make kids afraid of the internet or digital space, but to teach them how to make it positive and how they can employ them for good,' Erin says.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail and WE Charity are partners on a range of content and initiatives, including WE Day at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Sept. 20. This story is part of a special report on the organization and the event.

Like any mom, Erin Barton, chief development officer for the youth-empowerment organization WE, worries about online safety for her three young children.

That includes a 10-year-old who likes to think he’s much older than 10, a soon to be eight-year-old and a five-year-old. All have some kind of digital device so they’re all connected, whether watching videos or starting to post on Instagram, which doesn’t have the same age requirements as other social media.

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Ms. Barton has already started a conversation with her children about their online behaviour and how they can protect their digital footprint. Top among her emerging concerns is online bullying.

Cyberbullying is a serious mental health issue, estimated to affect as many as one million Canadian children each month. According to a Statistics Canada report, almost one in every five young Canadians has been a victim of cyberbullying or cyberstalking.

“A bully isn’t someone kicking a chair behind you, like it was when I was in Grade 5,” Ms. Barton says. “My son’s going to be in Grade 5. It’s a whole new world of how kids are communicating now and the visibility we can have of that as parents.”

Ms. Barton defines cyberbullying as whenever anyone experiences any online negativity directed toward them. That might be the misuse of a photo that was intended only for an individual, being excluded, put-downs or slander campaigns that might emerge virally on social media. She believes the first step in preventing cyberbullying is raising awareness about it.

To that end, WE and telecommunications company Telus joined forces to combat cyberbullying and take action around creating positive and safe online spaces. The Telus and WE campaign includes on-stage WE Day speakers sharing their personal stories and a co-branded WE Schools curriculum, WE Rise Above, which is integrated with the Telus #EndBullying initiative. Telus contributes $1 to support #EndBullying programs for youth in Canada for every Canadian who takes the Telus Wise Digital Pledge.

“The point is not to make kids afraid of the internet or digital spaces, but to teach them how to make it positive and how they can employ them for good,” Ms. Barton says. “That’s really what the whole WE global learning centre is all about – it’s how we can be connected and create a facility with global connections. Telus’s investment has allowed us to do that.”

The partnership between WE and Telus goes back to the inaugural WE Day in 2007 when Telus came in as the technology partner enabling children to post their thoughts on screens set up around the stadium. Jill Schnarr, vice-president of community affairs for Vancouver-based Telus, had heard WE co-founder Craig Kielburger speak at a women’s conference in Calgary the previous year, and that connection led to Telus becoming a sponsor. To date, Telus has provided more than $20-million in funding to WE and recently re-signed to continue for another four years.

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“We have the responsibility as a company to address the major social issue of kids being cyberbullied,” Ms. Schnarr says. “So we need to ensure we’re investing in partnerships, training and education, so that people are aware of these issues, know how pervasive they are and are using technology for good.”

As a parent, Ms. Schnarr found the campaign with WE was a great opener to get her teenage sons to talk freely about cyberbullying issues. She even sought their advice about advertising spots.

“I took home creative to them and asked what was more impactful and what made a difference to them,” Ms. Schnarr says. “They get this power of social change, their empowerment and what they can do to make things better.”

Ms. Barton finds it comforting to know that they can mobilize young people around this incredibly destructive issue which could become real for her own children.

“We’ve learned some good tools as a family, from putting the Telus Wise sticker over the camera on our computer so they can’t turn on the video or photo button, to having conversations around the dinner table about how what you post stays with you forever,” Ms. Barton says. “This whole program is a great resource for me as a parent, relieving me of what could have otherwise been fears of a big bad digital world that, in fact, could be a great space of positivity. We just have to guide our kids in that direction.

“On a recent trip to the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto], my son asked me to take a photograph of him looking into a microscope in the kids’ interactive lab. Then he said, ‘Mom, I need you to put that on my computer for my profile because the brand that I’m creating about myself is that I’m a kid who’s interested in science.’

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"That’s my 10-year-old. He sort of got the notion around a personal brand and what appropriate representation is. It wasn’t a picture of him with his shirt off or doing something silly. It was right on point.”

Parent Erin Barton worked on the cyberbullying campaign for WE, which prompted her to have open discussions with Tai, Noah and Isabelle about healthy online habits.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

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