Schools’ cyberbullying quandary

Cyberbullying cases are very individual, based on real-world relationships and school life, so schools need to talk with students and parents when cyberbullying heats up.

By Anne Collier

Most teens don’t cyberbully or harass their peers maliciously via the Web or phones and other digital devices, nationwide studies have shown. But some – anywhere from 4% to 30%, depending on the study cited – have, some extremely hurtfully, a very small portion of them with a level of aggression that led to teens’ suicides. The research also shows that a great deal of this behavior, from mean to repetitively cruel, has a lot to do with school life and school-based relationships, which puts schools in a very difficult position. That’s what a recent long, thorough article in the New York Times was about: the legal and professional quandaries in which cyberbullying is putting schools. It’s insightful because the reporter spent some time in at least a couple of schools, talking with students, administrators, and other members of their communities.

Canned online-safety messages don’t work: The Times indicates that some administrators, thankfully, are doing what cyberbullying researchers Robin Kowalski, Susan Limber, and Patricia Agatston found in 2008 that parents and educators weren’t doing much – more and more, we’re talking with students about cyberbullying. Kowalski, Limber, and Agatston found that, “when asked if parents [were] talking with them about it, students primarily shared messages about Internet safety.” I’m guessing what that means is students were parroting back canned messages that have nothing to do specifically with their own experiences and relationships at school. When we want to know if our kids are witnessing or experiencing cyberbullying, we need to ask them about what the social part of school is like: what the school does about mean behavior, if anything, how students generally treat each other, what their friends are like, how they treat them and vice versa.

Talking about it helps, students say. Meanwhile, two other researchers, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, found in their Youth Voice Project survey of students all over the US that what students find most helpful, when victimized by electronic aggression, it seems, is being heard and acknowledged, especially by peers but also by adults. What they found most helpful from adults was that they: “listened to me,” “gave me advice,” and “checked in with me afterwards to see if the behavior stopped.”

In her blog, Rosalind Wiseman, consultant and author of Queen Bees & Wannabes, commented on the cyberbullying incident that the New York Times led with, zooming in on the biggest reason why so few teens report bullying incidents to parents and other adults (10%, according to a study done at UCLA): their fear that “adults’ reactions in these situations make the problem bigger.” It’s not just because they don’t want their technology taken away, as we used to think. It’s about adults making things worse. And kids’ fears about that are not unfounded; in fact, Wiseman points to adults’ refusal to recognize that they themselves can make social conditions worse for their kids and students. In sexting cases – where we really want our kids to come to us so we can minimize the victimization – all too easily kids can “disciplined” (in a sense, victimized) over and over by peers, parents, school officials, and even law enforcement, so we adults need to tread very carefully in all cases of child victimization.

Thoughtful discovery process needed. “The bottom line, if the child’s life doesn’t appear to be in danger,” Wiseman says, is: “parents have to begin the process by reaching out to the other parents [those of the child who seems to be doing the bullying] in a calm and thoughtful way.” Why do I use the word “seems” there? Because, as in the case reported by the Times, the bully is not always who he or she seems to be. In that incident, the bully was someone who’d found and used another boy’s phone (the school, which conducted the investigation, never figured out exactly who). In effect, the bully was victimizing both the girl and the boy whose phone he was using to harass the girl, to get the phone owner in trouble, or both.

To say the least, these incidents are complicated and – as the Times piece ably illustrates – dealing with them can take a lot of time and effort. But the effort is worth it, and not just because things could’ve gone very bad for the innocent boy who’d lost his cellphone if the targeted child’s parents had gone to the police, as the school had originally suggested. It’s worth it because, if investigations are conducted in a calm, respectful way, victimization is minimized and children (and adults) learn important lessons in the discovery process.

Talking points. When we hear young people say things like what an 8th-grader told the Times – that, when in a social network site, “you can be as mean as you want” – there is a serious need for communication. But do make it non-confrontational and reflective. If you are not a psychologist, you’re not sure why a child could want to be mean, and you want to ensure your children or students don’t want to bully peers, I suggest you ask them to read the Times piece and have an exploratory conversation that could help you figure out *together* how and why cyberbullying happens and what can be done about it. Or just read them that 8th-grader’s message and ask them what they think. Some talking points might be: Do you ever just feel like being mean to peers? Why? If not, why do you think that girl said that? Is she right? Do texting and social networking make it easy to be mean? Why/why not? Does online anonymity [as a risk-prevention expert said in a talk recently] also make it easier to help someone being bullied? Would you help? What do you think is the solution to behavior like the one in the New York Times article? If you were a school administrator and/or one of the parents involved, how would you work it out? This is real online-safety education.

Related links

* A school district that gets it: Illinois’s District 145 board “passed the inclusion of ‘cyber bullying’ and ‘sexting’ to their student code of conduct for the 2010-2011 student handbook. Both District 145 Superintendent Peter Flynn and Director of Equity Teresa Hines said that ‘cyberbullying’ does not necessarily have to happen on school grounds or using school equipment, such as computers, for the school to intervene,” the Journal-Standard of Freeport, Ill., reports. If cyberbullying involves students who know each other because of school, the school gets involved, the superintendent said. [The state last month passed a law requiring private and public schools to expand their definition of “bullying” to include electronic means. Thanks to Nancy Willard of for pointing this article out.]
* The first of Rosalind Wiseman’s responses to the Times article
* Materials for schools on how to deal with cyberbullying from Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use
* How do we help our children maintain some detachment from the drama, sometimes cruelty, of school life? This, I think, is a key question of online safety, if not child development, in the digital age…. See one way to help our digital-age kids
* “The ‘Era of Behavior’ online too, of course”
* “Parenting & the digital drama overload”
* “Student leaders’ views on cyberbullying”
* “Clicks & cliques: *Really* meaty advice for parents on cyberbullying”
* “Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole school approach needed”
* “Citizenship & the social Web mirror in our faces 24/7”
* “Social norming: *So* key to online safety”

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