The 14-year-old suspect accused of stabbing nine people at a high school in Pickering kept a blog that tracks a disturbing pattern. "I want to die. My existence as a whole is meaningless and I feel nothing but pain and sorrow with every waking moment," one post from November says. In a December post she mentioned trying to kill herself by "overdosing on medical drug." She posted several times about being bullied because she identifies as gender-fluid. Then, last month, perhaps the most disturbing post: "I'm kinda shaking and freaking out right now because I really want to go to school tomorrow with knives and just hurt and kill as many people as I can." The Globe's Dave McGinn spoke to Debra Pepler, a professor of psychology at York University and scientific co-director at PREVNet, a network of researchers and organizations dedicated to stopping bullying in Canada about the importance of keeping track of your kids online and how to help them deal with bullying or other issues.
How should parents monitor their children's social media?
We need to think about it in terms of the stage of development that a child is in. At a young age parents should very much be with children in social media. Parents need to be very involved with their children's experience with media in general. As they get older, the natural progression is for them to have some independence from their parents. There comes a point where parents need to be able to trust children, and children need to be able to know their parents trust them.
Some kids may be able to hide their online lives from parents. What can parents look for in their child's behaviour for signs of how they are doing?
When children are in distress there are often signs of it, particularly for younger children. There are signs that they're depressed, that they're sad, that they're very worried, that there is a change in their sleeping patterns or their eating patterns or their work at school. They might be so worried about going to school they can't concentrate. There are changes in behaviour that parents who are present with their children can actually see and start to question.
How do you question that behaviour when it so difficult for the child to discuss?
It needs to be open and non-judgmental. "How were things at school today?" "Who did you have lunch with?" "What were the hard things?"
Why would it be wrong to ask, "Are you being bullied at school?"
The child senses that there is a great deal of shame in that, and they think in lots of cases that parents aren't able to solve it anyway, and if parents get involved it will just get worse.
If it does become clear from those conversations or signs online that your child is being bullied, what are the next steps for parents?
First, I would talk to the child about it. Say, "I'm just really worried. Can you help me understand what's happening here?" And be sure to have the child print it out or copy it or ensure that you have evidence of what's happening because that's extremely important in helping the school understand it or God forbid for the police to understand it.
And if you see posts online of your child saying they have attempted suicide, or are even mentioning suicide, that is a different course of action.
It's a very different course of action. Or if the child is seriously depressed, is not going to school, is destabilized in any way, then of course they need mental health counselling.
Social media is unfamiliar territory to many parents. It is certainly a place where a lot of bullying happens and also where victims of bullying will sometimes discuss their experiences. Specific actions need to be taken to address those realities. But fundamentally the most important thing is having open communication with your children and making it clear to your children that they can communicate anything with you. Do you agree?
One hundred per cent. It's really a question of talking with your child and ensuring that he or she has the judgment or capacity to say, "This doesn't feel right to me." And if it doesn't feel right to them, to be able to reach out to a trusted adult. Hopefully that's a parent.
This interview has been condensed and edited.