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School & District Management Opinion

Cyberbullying: What’s Different, and What’s Not, about Meanness Online

By Justin Reich — September 05, 2012 3 min read
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I’m cooking up a new research project looking into cyberbullying and online meanness and cruelty, with Carrie James of Harvard’s Project Zero and Katie Davis, who just started a faculty position at University of Washington’s iSchool (yay, Katie!). It’s a logical extension of Carrie and Katie’s research into youth online ethics, and it’s a logical extension of my new position with Facing History and Ourselves, an organization devoted to combating bigotry and nurturing democracy through education and close case studies of genocide and prejudice.

We think there’s some room for more qualitative research on anti-cyberbullying implementation: what are districts doing and how do kids make sense of it? I have a particular interest in how schools and kids are adapting well researched anti-bullying guidelines that were developed in a pre-Internet era. For instance, adults encourage kids to “take the audience of a bully away.” That makes sense when you can get up from a cafeteria table where someone is getting picked on, but how do you “take the audience away” when the teasing goes online?

One of my best guides to this domain has always been Anne Collier of NetFamilyNews.org, who has been thinking great thoughts about online safety for over a decade. Anne has two recent posts that offer a great introduction to the latest thinking on cyber-bullying. She emphasizes three big points:

1) Cyberbullying isn’t a helpful word.

Cyberbullying has a nice ring to it, but it’s problematic in a few ways. First, online and offline aggression are deeply intertwined. Second, lots of things that are terrible (e.g. a single act of violence) are not bullying. Third, kids don’t really use the word “bully.” Anne points to Alice Marwick’s research on “drama” and the language that young people use to explain their complex, sometimes contentious social interactions. Anne agrees with Alice that more expansive words, like “meanness” and “peer aggression,” have more useful meaning in education and more resonance with kids than “bullying.”

2) Cyberbullying isn’t an epidemic

Most kids don’t bully online, most bullying still happens face to face. There is much more evidence of online meanness and cruelty, because the Internet makes things visible, but Anne argues that more exposure is “a net gain because it provides us with more information about and therefore understanding of an age-old problem that can now be addressed with that better understanding.”

It’s actually really important that most kids are not bullies. In another post, Anne shares research on a study where researchers actively advertised the high rates of non-bullying in schools, and found that bullying behaviors declined. The theory is that if you tell kids that most kids are being nice to each other, the rest will.

3) Cyberbullying needs to be addressed comprehensively by addressing school culture.

If your plan for addressing cyberbullying in your school is an assembly, you probably don’t have a good plan.

Anne argues that emerging research suggests that you don’t so much stop bullying, as you nurture and promote a compassionate school culture. School cultures of kindness and respect are built when elements of social and emotional learning are built into the core academic curriculum as well as the broader life of schools and districts.

Cyber-bullying Webinar Next Week

I’m a big fan of all four of these brilliant women—Katie, Carrie, Anne, and Alice—so much so that I’m pulling them together for a free webinar next week on Cyber-Bullying- What’s Different, and What’s Not, about Meanness and Cruelty Online. The webinar will be held at 4pm EDT on September 12, and you can register at the link above. (Even if you can’t come live, you can register and get the recording).

The webinar is sponsored by Facing History and is part of a series of webinars directed at educators who have recently viewed the Bully documentary with their students. The following webinars (each a week apart) in the series look at creating cultures of kindness from and respect from the classroom and at the school and district level. I’ll have some terrific teachers and school leaders joining me for these latter events. Please join me!

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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