Powerful lessons for preventing bullying & cyberbullying

By Anne Collier

It’s October already, so National Cyber Security Awareness Month (#NCSAM2014) and National Bullying Prevention Month have arrived – offering a good reminder that, in today’s increasingly user-driven digital environments, digital safety and security depend on all Net users of all ages. Care and respect for each other’s property, privacy, identity, emotional safety and digital security – just about every online representation of us and our lives – increases our own and those of our peers and communities. Today I’ll focus on the human side of security, marking the start of this high-awareness month with a sampler of all we’ve learned about bullying online and offline….

So much wisdom and sound practice has emerged since social media reignited concerns about social cruelty – by making it more visible, not more common, than ever. [In fact, research released by the US Centers for Disease Control this past June shows a small decrease in cyberbullying between 2011 and 2013. Last year it was down to 14.8% of students having experienced “electronic bullying” in the 12 months prior to the survey, which means a huge majority – 85.2% – had not been cyberbullied during that year.]

We know so much more now, from the prevention to the intervention parts of the solution spectrum. First and foremost, we know that all solution development needs input from students themselves.

It has been quoted before (including here), but I’ll quote it again: “We,” wrote the authors of the milestone Youth Voice Project that surveyed more than 13,000 US students in grades 5-12, “are concerned that too much work in this field has focused on adults telling youth what bullying is and what to do to address bullying behavior.

“In reality, youth are the primary experts on what is happening at school and on what works best to prevent peer maltreatment…. We see authentic youth involvement as key to success in bullying prevention.” This has been expressed in European and Australian research circles too.

Here’s just a sampler of other game-changing insights research has turned up since the advent of “cyberbullying”:

  • Bullying’s not normative, but social rivalry is. A study involving 3,722 8th-to-10th-graders in three North Carolina counties looked at the social pecking-order aspect of the power imbalance involved in bullying, introducing a shift in focus from individual to social context. For another perspective on this, see psychologist Carl Pickhardt’s piece in PsychologyToday.com.
  • One-time meanness more common than the repeated kind: For both offenders and targets, “experiencing one episode of bullying is more common than experiencing bullying repeatedly,” the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center reported, in the results of an important study of students in grades 3-5. One-time meanness could be many things we all experience, not just bullying: e.g., an expression of stress, anger or frustration, an outburst on one side an argument, a prank or act of misguided humor, etc. (and technically, it’s not even bullying). In a reference to resilience building, MARC added that, while “efforts to control bullying may often be successful, it is also possible that many children learn, from one episode, how to avoid future episodes.” And more on resilience…
  • No resilience without risk: ” “Risk and resilience go hand in hand, as resilience can only develop through exposure to risks or stressful events,” reported EU Kids Online. “Consequently, as children learn how to adequately cope with (online) adversities, they develop (online) resilience.” More thoughts on how to grow resilience in this about a TED Talk by game designer Jane McGonigal and this one by her sister, Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.
  • Telling kids the truth about bullying can reduce it, social norms research shows. When people get the facts – in this case that study after study shows that the great majority of kids don’t engage in bullying – bullying goes down even more. That’s because perception affects behavior (more on this here).
  • Restorative justice needed: and not just on the intervention side. In this video interview, longtime practitioner and teacher of restorative practices Lee Rush shows how restorative practices can be a powerful tool for preventing social cruelty as well as restoring justice and helping community members heals. Like SEL, it’s a participatory solution for problems involving participatory media as well as school communities that demonstrate that every member’s a stakeholder. Besides, young people who exhibit bullying behavior are often hurting too. Not only can restorative practices – if appropriate to harmful incidents and for the people involved – hold offenders accountable and show them the consequences of their behavior; they can show the community that bullying doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It typically comes from pain or trauma on the offender’s part. This was reinforced at the August Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington in August, when the director of the US Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention called for the screening for trauma of all children disciplined for bullying or entering the juvenile justice system.
  • Positive school climates necessary too: Context – or environmental change – is closely related to behavior change. Cyberbullying Research Center co-founders, professors and author Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patching speak to this in their book School Climate 2.0, and a key finding from a national Internet safety task force at Harvard’s Berkman Center in 2008 was that not just a child’s psychosocial makeup but also his/her home and school environments are better predictors of the child’s risk or safety than any technology s/he uses.
  • Stop using the word “bullying” in school. Leading researcher on bullying Dorothy Espelage at University of Illinois, said, “The word ‘bullying’ has really obscured our ability to focus on what’s happening to children.” Labels can dehumanize and increase drama and emotional responses and so increase rather than reduce harm.
  • Adults need literacy too. That children need to develop their digital age literacy (digital, media and social) for success and self and peer protection in connected media is getting growing recognition, fortunately – witness the June 2014 report of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet. What needs more discussion and awareness is adults’ need for digital, media and social literacy if we’re going to stop the fear and labeling and turn schools into the communities of guided practice that all children deserve. The Task Force addressed this, and a recent Australian study reported that “greater literacy in the media and technology their children use increases child safety by opening up parent-child communication, enhancing mutual trust” and enabling parents to provide better backup.

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