Can you answer the question, “What is Cyberbullying?”
In nearly three years of presenting my program reACT to Bullying, no other issue causes as much concern among school administrators as cyberbullying.
No matter what school I’m visiting, I see educators produce the same disgusted exhale when they see the word brought up onscreen during my visit. In fact, one principal told me he now calls Mondays “Social Media Day” because of an invariable list of issues he consistently has to deal with after nearly every weekend. In fact, the percentages of individuals who have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lifetimes have nearly doubled (18% to 34%) from 2007-2016.
What is Cyberbullying?
In my presentation to schools, I give students and faculty a three-step method to define and identify bullying. Cyberbullying follows these general guidelines, but with one distinct principle. The clinical definition of cyberbullying is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” It is the use of electronic devices that makes cyberbullying so concerning.
Cyberbullies often rely on the anonymity that devices, apps, and programs provide. This perceived invisibility is a form of power. Just like face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying is mean, repeated, and marked by a power imbalance. The main difference is the use of electronic devices to conduct the bullying.
What Does Cyberbullying Look Like?
Sometimes, the methods used in cyberbullying fall under the category of “you know it when you see it.” Many of us assume it’s limited to threatening text messages or posts on social media forums. However, the forms that cyberbullying can take are numerous. These can include posting/sending private information or images; impersonation; exclusion; defamation; threats; harassment/stalking; and manipulation.
Real world examples I see include:
If some of those terms aren’t familiar to you, you aren’t alone. Cyberbullying can move pretty fast, and tactics change frequently. Kids are a lot more resourceful than we sometimes give them credit for, and they are the ones driving this trend. The scope and variety of social media platforms available for cyberbullying use is extensive. Just as soon as adults get a handle on one form or method of online harassment, the strategies change. Of course, cyberbullying spills over into the adult world, too, so don’t assume you’re protected just because you’re a grown-up. The format used might be a little behind what the kids are using, but the intent and methods are still the same.
The Two Biggest Dangers of Cyberbullying
During the course of my presentation, I usually share with my audience two of the biggest dangers regarding cyberbullying: scope and permanence.
Scope happens when the brain is tricked into thinking that the bullying only affects the primary players in the drama. Take away the cyber element and this might be true. But cyberbullies often underestimate the scope of their influence. They believe that the handful of people who might be directly involved are the only ones affected. Unfortunately, this is not accurate. The scope of cyberbullying has the potential to reach much further than the immediate circle of bully and victim. Harmful activity can easily reach hundreds, if not thousands.
Permanence is an issue that rarely occurs to those who cyberbully. Most think that a mean comment or damaging picture will only be noticed for a day or, at most, a week. But family, friends and even interviewers for college or career opportunities can easily access most cyber/social media activity forever. During my presentations, I typically ask my audience to imagine someone important to them staring at a screen five years in the future. They may have forgotten about their actions, but the proof exists in cyberspace long afterward.
Human beings are sometimes not very good at forward thinking. Cyberbullies, especially, don’t take into consideration how far-reaching their actions can be. They see their actions “in the moment” and don’t consider the long-term consequences. That’s what makes cyberbullying especially dangerous.
Cyberbully-Proof Your Kids
There is a good reason educators huff in disgust when I bring up the topic of cyberbullying: it feels like a Herculean task to deal with it. They attempt to control it by establishing cell phone policies. They involve law enforcement if a student makes a threat of any sort. They employ school resource officers. They hire bullying prevention speakers (like me) to come in and talk to their students about bullying.
While I’m more than happy to come to a school and talk to kids about bullying – cyber and otherwise – there are plenty of ways schools and parents can address cyberbullying.
What Schools Can Do
- Provide social media education.
What students post online can affect them in ways they may not fully realize. Show them examples of student-athletes who have lost scholarship opportunities over what they posted on social media. Even non-athletes have lost acceptance to colleges for their social media posts.
- Encourage a culture of kindness.
Often, bullyproofing your school means providing students with an alternative to bullying behavior. Teaching and encouraging kindness can reap rewards that extend far outside of campus. As Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, do better.”
- Teach SEL.
Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, has been linked to academic gains, reduced teacher stress, and less bullying. Soft skills such as self-awareness, self- management, and responsible decision-making can help curtail some of the negative emotions behind bullying.
- Train your staff.
Make no mistake, your staff has a lot of responsibility on their plate. However, training your staff to spot bullying can make a huge difference in your school. Teachers are in a unique position to help a bullied student.
What Parents Can Do
- Talk to kids about permanence in social media.
The “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of social media is misleading. Even with apps that claim to erase photos or posts, there is always a possibility for a screenshot. Even deleted texts can be recovered.
- Establish rules about electronics and social media use.
Limiting screen time is a good idea for all ages. Nearly 80% of teens use social media, and more than 90% are online daily. Help your kids by imposing limits when it comes to their social media. You may get pushback (actually, count on it) but it’s best for them.
- Encourage open, honest discussion.
Being “real” with your kids isn’t easy sometimes, but it’s something they will appreciate. It may require you to bite your tongue on occasion, and you might not like (or understand) everything they say. Still, it’s the best way to learn about what’s going on in their lives.
- Practice what you preach.
Kids can spot a phony at ten paces. If you’re telling them to do one thing but are doing the opposite, you’ll lose. Perfect example: phubbing. This is a term for snubbing someone in favor of what’s on your cell phone. We’ve all experienced it, and if you’re doing it, your child will notice. They might even call you out on it. And if you’re using social media to tear someone down, they’ll catch on to that, too.
Cyberbullying can create a toxic atmosphere in your school and in your community. It’s nearly impossible to influence what happens with your students off-campus, but it still affects them when they are at school. You likely won’t be able to end it overnight, but you can take steps to reduce or eliminate its effects.