Student leaders’ views on cyberbullying

Here are risk-prevention specialist Patricia Agatston’s notes from a lively discussion with student leaders in Georgia about cyberbullying and what to do about it.

By Anne Collier

The other day, Patricia Agatston – school risk-prevention specialist and co-author of Cyber Bullying Prevention Curriculum for Grades 6-12 and Grades 3-5 – met with 30 student leaders at a high school in the state of Georgia. She asked them for their thoughts on cyberbullying.

“I found this discussion fascinating,” she later wrote some colleagues. “I was there to discuss bullying, and we did a role-playing exercise that went pretty well, but when I moved the discussion to cyberbullying, the room just lit up. I was kind of shocked it was such a hot topic. I talk to kids about this fairly often – but something is really happening out there. I would venture to say that, while face-to-face bullying is a big topic in elementary and middle school, the issue of cyberbullying is huge with high schoolers because they have become so much more connected and, Anne, I think what you have written about, this idea of constant access [see “Related links” below], is what is feeding the flame.”

In light of several current news stories about tragic cyberbullying cases, I thought you’d appreciate, as I did, the insights these students offer. Here, published with her permission, are Dr. Agatston’s notes from the session (I inserted ellipses between students’ responses to keep this post to a manageable length):

Question: How bad is cyberbullying at your school?

Various answers from the students: “It’s bad [“group consensus,” Dr. Agatston wrote]…. People can be meaner so much easier now…. It is way more powerful than regular bullying…. There are apps like Formspring[.me] that are easy to access (Facebook is blocked by the school district but Formspring is not), and people use it to anonymously say awful things about one another [Note from Agatston: “This started a heated debate about how some people are just asking for trouble if they participate in Formspring – so, the students said, why would you do that if you knew people could leave hurtful comments about you?” Note from me: Formspring use is a trend; it turned up in a tragic suicide story on Long Island, N.Y., this week. Back to the students:]

Problems with evidence gathering: “People are figuring out how to keep things more private so it is harder to have evidence of the bullying too. People don’t post things as publicly anymore…. You can’t just copy and paste IMs into a document because the administration will say that you could have altered it, or the other parent can say that, so now that cyberbullying is taking place through less visible ways, i.e. texting and IM Chat on Facebook, it is harder to prove.” Agatston: “Some debate around ways that you could still have evidence. But the point, I think, is that kids don’t always think to save the chat on Facebook right away, and it is deleted after 24 hours, so evidence is lost, versus comments posted on a wall.”

Do you see cyberbullying incidents as just happening all of a sudden, or are they reactions to things that happen in ongoing relationships and between peer groups?

“It’s both…. Some start spontaneously online, and some are reactions from relationships among peers at school.” [Agatston: “But the consensus of the group was that more of the cyberbullying incidents happened in reaction to things that were happening at school.”]

Is there any single best way to deal with a cyberbullying incident from your perspective? What advice for teachers and school administrators on how to handle one? Or is each case pretty different? [Agatston: “These questions led to very lively discussion/debate.”]

“It depends on the situation…. Schools should not get involved…. You should try to resolve it yourself…. If that doesn’t work you talk to your parents…. Schools should be the third/last option….” [Agatston: “Much agreement to this statement.” Me: This tracks with Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up Survey of US students and findings of the Youth Voice Project study I wrote about here.]

Responding to bullies (or not): “You have to act like it doesn’t bother you even though it does…. [Agatston: “One student shared how talking to his parents helped him.”]… You have to tell your friends not to respond. It really does make things worse. And then you have now put yourself in a position where you look bad, too, because you said things back. That’s why a lot of kids don’t tell – because they have said bad things back, and so they can’t prove they didn’t do anything wrong, that it was one-sided…. It is harder to deal with cyberbullying than face-to-face bullying. You can stand up to someone face-to-face, and they will back off. If you stand up to someone online, it just escalates things…. You can respond if you think through a thoughtful response, but most kids just react, and that makes it worse.”

Could you give examples of how you’ve helped peers work out cyberbullying-related problems?

“Told them to talk to their parents…. Told them not to respond and stay calm….”

Do you think the school should intervene with off-campus cyber-bullying that disrupts school?

“No. [Agatston: “A lot of agreement, here.”] It doesn’t really help. Our administrators did a mediation with some girls who were cyberbullying another student. It just got worse. They became more secretive…. [See Rosalind Wiseman’s advice to administrators in dealing with socially aggressive students here.] There is not a lot they can do unless you have a copy/clear evidence…. Going to a counselor is better than going to an administrator.”

Do you share with adults the negative things you see or experience online?

“No…. Only parents. [Agatston: “Why not?”] If you have responded, it escalates things and you can get blamed. That’s why people don’t tell….”

Do you have any suggestions for prevention of cyberbullying?

“We got these books that went home [they’re referring to the Federal Trade Commission’s Net Cetera booklet that schools can order for free] – that was a joke; most of the kids flipped through them and threw them in the trash…. Actually, I think some of the students learned something from them – but they didn’t take them home to their parents, which is what they were supposed to do…. Yeah, because their parents would learn some things they were up to and they wouldn’t want them to know. [Agatston: “FYI, this was very funny to me because I was the one who worked with the FTC to get the Net Cetera books sent home with every parent in our district. We knew it was risky sending them home with high school kids, so obviously they never made it home to the parents, but I was intrigued to learn that some kids were reading the information for themselves! Elementary copies made it home and middle school mostly handed out during parent-teacher conference week.”]… Assemblies are not effective. [Agatston: “Some debate on this – it depends on the speaker; small group discussions are better than big assemblies, where everyone tunes out – don’t want to be lectured.”]… Students need to hear from real people and how it affected them…. It is easier to be a positive defender through technology than it is [to defend peers] face-to-face.”

If you lose access to technology how do you feel?

“Depressed…. Sad…. Angry…. Disconnected…. Isolated…. Lonely…. Lost.”

Agatston’s conclusions

“The students who participated in this discussion were clearly concerned about online bullying as well as the escalation of conflict through the use of technology. Undoubtedly, some bullying behavior erupts spontaneously online, but the majority of what youth are dealing with is a continuation and escalation of bullying and conflict that occurs when they’re connected by social media and the mobile Web all the time. It is discouraging to see that this group of youth leaders does not see adults at school as helpful resources when online bullying and conflict occur. But most do seem willing to go to their parents if they’re unable to resolve issues on their own, and a few are willing to approach a school counselor.

“It was helpful to hear their suggestion that prevention activities involving discussions about real cyberbullying situations are a good method for addressing cyberbullying. It’s clear students also need tips on 1) how to avoid escalation of conflict online and 2) how to disengage from the social drama of their peer group. While bullying prevention that addresses online behavior is critical, this discussion with some high school student leaders suggests a need to update conflict-resolution training to address online conflict.”

Related links

* A just-released study of nearly 12,000 US students in grades 5-12 at 25 schools in 12 states across the country: the Youth Voice Project (summarized and linked to here) – offering important insights into bullying victims’ own views on what causes bullying, how it affects them, and what does and doesn’t work in dealing with it.
* “‘Recombinant art’ & life?: Parenting & the digital drama overload”
* “Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids”
* “Clicks & cliques: *Really* meaty advice for parents on cyberbullying”
* “Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole-school response is key”

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