Fresh takes on ‘cyberbullying’ & how to deal with it

By Anne Collier

A subhead to this post might be “The flaws of laws” – but also the flawed term “cyberbullying” itself. Every kid is very individual, so every case of bullying or cyberbullying is very individual. It’s therefore difficult and probably very unwise to make generalizations about the cases, the children involved, or bullying in general. And increasingly I’m hearing from risk-prevention experts, even as more and more states pass anti-bullying laws, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution or law that can effectively deal with all cases (except schools creating their own cultures of respect, but that’s another story – see this one).

Even the term “bullying” is problematic if used as a blanket term. Because in most cases of school conflict, we’re not talking about a single kid exhibiting a pattern of aggression. Only in some cases. Other times, it’s an argument or conflict with no clear aggressor, a drama queen or king getting off on sparking something, a sudden outbreak of frustration in the ongoing high drama of school life, etc. “Sometimes children who aren’t normally bullies get caught up in a larger culture of aggression — say, a clique of preadolescent girls who form a club with the specific function of being mean to other girls,” write two psychologists in the New York Times.

So that’s why it’s good to have a big, full toolbox for dealing with whatever comes up. In it are fair rules or policies, a really solid incident investigation protocol (like this one), a procedure for students’ anonymous reporting, an outstanding counselor whom students and parents really trust, a student peer-mentoring program, and some tech tools too. For that last category, the New York Times recently devoted a Personal Tech column to the subject, including features and systems social sites have for dealing with online nastiness:

1. Tech aids for beating bullying online

All the big-brand social sites – Facebook, MySpace, Formspring, and Twitter – allow users to block not only abusive comments but also their creators from coming back with more, Times writer Riva Richmond reports – without letting the creators know. They all also let you report abusive comments, posts pages, and groups, and MySpace even gives you the option to pre-approve all posts to your profile if you want. “If you are staring down a mean comment or question on Formspring, don’t answer it, and it won’t be seen by anyone else,” she adds. “You can also block the author from contacting you again” without the author knowing it, and you can set your privacy settings so that no one anonymous can post a question.

Those are all great features that users should take advantage of if they need to, but parents also need to be aware of what isn’t that clear in the article: that online socializing is usually a reflection of your kids’ offline social circles and relationships, so disagreements are tough to resolve totally by blocking someone or getting a profile or group deleted. Even now in the 21st century, it’s still really about our humanity, not our technology.

But let’s look at some other ways tech can at least help: Richmond describes the new-wave social monitoring tools that support good reputation management: e.g., Norton Online Family, SocialShield, and SafetyWeb (I wrote about AOL’s SafeSocial last week). The way they help the most is by promoting parent-child conversation without making that parental engagement embarrassingly visible to your kids’ friends.

A final step Richmond covers is when to report the abuse to the authorities, which generally means evidence will be needed. She tells how to gather it and mentions a software tool that can help you do that. Check out the article for details.

2. The flaws of anti-bullying laws

Forty-four states now have laws against bullying, and the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last year, was introduced in the Senate just last month. On the surface, anti-bullying legislation sounds great, but I’ve actually seen some compelling arguments from educators questioning it, and it’s good to look at this a little more closely….

First, from senior lecturer Susan Engel and Prof. Marlene Sandstrom in the psychology department at Williams College in Massachusetts. In a commentary for the New York Times, they argue: “The danger of anti-bullying laws … is that they may subtly encourage schools to address this complicated problem quickly and superficially. Many schools are buying expensive anti-bullying curriculum packages, big glossy binders that look reassuring on the bookshelf and technically place schools closer to compliance with the new laws. But our research on child development makes it clear that there is only one way to truly combat bullying. As an essential part of the school curriculum, we have to teach children how to be good to one another, how to cooperate, how to defend someone who is being picked on and how to stand up for what is right.”

The need to be specific

Second, buried in some important advice from Colby College education professor Lyn Mikel Brown in Education Week two years ago: “Talk accurately about behavior,” she suggests, as opposed to calling it all “bullying” and “cyberbullying.” “If it’s sexual harassment, call it sexual harassment; if it’s homophobia, call it homophobia; and so forth. To lump disparate behaviors under the generic ‘bullying’ is to efface real differences that affect young people’s lives…. Because of this, as the sexual-harassment expert Nan Stein has noted, embracing anti-bullying legislation can actually undermine the legal rights and protections offered by anti-harassment laws. Calling behaviors what they are helps us educate children about their rights, affirms their realities, encourages more-complex and meaningful solutions, opens up a dialogue, invites children to participate in social change, and ultimately protects them.” Hear, hear!

Brown goes on to explain how much more meaningful and empowering it is for kids if we can move past bullying prevention to youth empowerment: “Instead of labeling kids, let’s talk about them as potential leaders, affirm their strengths, and believe that they can do good, brave, remarkable things. The path to safer, less violent schools lies less in our control over children than in appreciating their need to have more control in their lives, to feel important, to be visible, to have an effect on people and situations.” This is exactly what we’ve been saying about online-safety messaging in “Online Safety 3.0.”

The federal anti-bullying law

In no way, though, am I saying I don’t support the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act that’s making its way through Congress right now. I do support it, 1) because school safety is the area where school-related bullying and conflict of all forms need to be addressed, 2) importantly, it adds bullying and harassment (not just physical bullying) to existing federal law that was in need of updating, and – as Brown suggests above – 3) it actually names the prohibited behavior: “conduct based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or any other distinguishing characteristics that may be defined by a state or local educational agency; or association with a person or group with one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics listed [above].”

Related links

* Students’ views: When asked a very general question around what they see as a big cyberbullying issue, six students in Australia, ages 14 and 15, as reported by the Waverley Leader, homed right in on what should happen with schools:
C: “I think the most important thing to do from now is to educate schools.
E: “And tell them the right way to use the internet.
C: “It’s not about saying, `no, no no,’ it’s about approaching the situation in the right way.
N: “Because if you just have a teacher saying, ‘don’t do this,’ then it doesn’t really relate to the students and it just goes in one ear and out the other, but if you have a real case of someone that did get bullied, someone their own age, like one of their peers, then it really hits home.
E: “That’s what I really think will get to students, it’s students their own age actually telling them their experiences.”
* Students in anti-bullying videos: Responding to a new state cyberbullying law, a Minnesota school district provided “teacher training this summer and a student-made video about penalties for cyberbullying, texting in class and ‘sexting’,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports. “Haskel Black, a senior at Champlin Park High School, played a teenager in the video who receives a sexually explicit photo of a classmate and forwards it to friends – a set of events that was eerily close to a real incident involving a friend during his freshman year.”
* Video debate on the US federal anti-bullying law: See a televised discussion on CNN this week about the Safe Schools Improvement Act: “Do Anti-Bullying Laws Push Gay Agenda?” with author/educator Rosalind Wiseman, GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard, and Focus on the Family’s Candi Cushman.
* Florida’s model school cyberbullying policy, shared by an education professor in that state
* Education Week’s special “Spotlight on Bullying” in 2008, which I mentioned above, holds up extremely well here in 2010. Anybody working with students and schools would benefit from reading every piece in it.
* Related past posts here at NFN: “Phoebe Prince story: Much more than meets the eye”; “Schools’ cyberbullying quandary”; “Students on bullying: Important study”; “Really sound cyberbullying advice for parents and schools”; “Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole-school response is key”

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