Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Cyberbullying

By Nancy E. Willard — April 04, 2006 8 min read
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BRIC ARCHIVE

Young people clearly have embraced the Internet as a tool for socializing. Unfortunately, though, there are increasing reports of teenagers, and sometimes younger children, using the Internet to engage in cyberbullying—being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social cruelty.

Cyberbullying can take many different forms. Here are a few, with examples:

Flaming. Online “fights” using electronic messages that contain angry and vulgar language. Joe and Alec’s online fight got angrier and angrier. Insults were flying. Joe warned Alec to “watch his back” in school the next day.

Harassment. Repeatedly sending offensive, rude, and insulting messages. Matt reported to the principal that students were bullying another student. When Matt got home, he had 35 angry messages in his e-mail inbox. The hateful messages kept coming—some of them from total strangers.

Denigration. “Dissing” someone online. Sending or posting gossip or rumors about a person designed to damage his or her reputation or friendships. Middle school students created a Web site denigrating Raymond. They posted distasteful stories, jokes, and cartoons that ridiculed his size and questioned his sexuality.

Impersonation. Breaking into someone’s e-mail account, posing as that person, and sending messages to make the person look bad, get him or her in trouble or in jeopardy, or damage that person’s reputation or friendships. Laura watched closely as Emma logged on to her e-mail account and discovered her password. Later, Laura logged on to Emma’s account and sent a scathing message to Emma’s boyfriend.

Outing and Trickery. Sharing someone’s secrets or embarrassing information or images online. Tricking someone into revealing secrets or embarrassing information, which is then shared online. Greg, an obese high school student, was changing clothes in the locker room after gym class. With a cellphone camera, Matt covertly took a picture of Greg. Within seconds, the unflattering photo was flying around to cellphones all over the school. In another incident, Judy engaged Sara in instant messaging, or IM, encouraging Sara to disclose intimate information. The next day, Judy was passing the conversation around school.

Exclusion. Intentionally keeping someone from being able to take part in an online group, such as a “buddy list.” Millie tried hard to fit in with a group of girls at her school. She recently got on the “outs” with a leader in this group. Now Millie has been excluded from the IM buddy lists of all the other girls.

Cyberstalking. Repeatedly sending unwanted messages that may include threats of harm or be otherwise highly intimidating. Engaging in other online activities that make a person afraid for his or her safety. When Annie broke up with Sam, he sent her many angry, threatening, pleading messages. He spread nasty rumors about her to her friends and posted a sexually suggestive picture she had given him on a sexually oriented discussion-group Web site, along with her e-mail address and cellphone number.

There is no escape for those being bullied in cyberspace: The victimization is ongoing.

Such instances of online bullying may be related to old-fashioned, in-school bullying. Sometimes, a student who is victimized at school is also being bullied online. At other times, however, a person being victimized at school may become a cyberbully and retaliate online. Cyberbullying frequently will occur between members of opposing social groups: the in-crowd and the wannabes. It may involve relationships, including angry breakups or fights about relationships, or it may be based on hate or bias—bullying others because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or even size, as in the case of overweight students. Unfortunately, many teenagers appear to think that cyberbullying is merely entertaining—a fun game to hurt people.

But the consequences may be much greater. We know that face-to-face bullying can result in long-term psychological harm to its targets: low self-esteem, depression, anger, school failure, avoidance of school, and, in some cases, school violence or suicide. The harm caused by cyberbullying may be even greater. Online communications can be extremely vicious. And there is no escape for those being bullied in cyberspace: The victimization is ongoing. What’s more, cyberbullying material can be distributed not just schoolwide, but worldwide, and is often irretrievable. Cyberbullies have anonymity, and can solicit the involvement of unknown friends. Reports of violent school incidents and suicides associated with cyberbullying are beginning to emerge.

Yet knowing about this kind of bullying can be difficult for adults. Teenagers are reluctant to tell them about it. Young people generally hesitate to share information about their online activities with adults, for fear that they might not approve of them and could impose restrictions. Often, the reluctance to report instances of cyberbullying is compounded by a fear that adults can do nothing to stop the harm, and that reporting it could lead to greater online retaliation.

The only way that educators and parents can effectively respond to this escalating problem is by becoming more involved in the online lives of young people and learning strategies that can stop the harmful practices. When youths realize that adults can and will respond effectively, they are more inclined to seek adult assistance.

The only way that educators and parents can effectively respond to this escalating problem is by becoming more involved in the online lives of young people.

For school officials, the immediate challenge is that most, but clearly not all, of this harmful activity is occurring off campus. Free-speech protections make it difficult for them to respond with formal discipline measures to off-campus online offenses. The legal standard established through court cases involving off-campus online speech targeting staff members requires that, to support a formal disciplinary response, the speech must create a “substantial and material disruption or threat of disruption at school.”

There have as yet been no court precedents involving seriously harmful off-campus speech directed by students electronically to other students, so it is unclear how the standard for staff members would be applied. But if the off-campus harmful speech involving students were to result in a material and substantial disruption of the targeted student’s ability to fully participate in learning and enrichment activities at school, this should meet the legal standard.

It is also possible that the offense includes closely connected on-campus activities, such as face-to-face bullying or use of the district’s Internet system to post or display the harmful material. When there are reports of cyberbullying involving students, schools should conduct individualized searches of the Internet-use activities of those students through the district’s Internet system.

If students are engaging in cyberbullying at school and the school is not engaged in reasonable efforts to detect, prevent, and respond to it, the potential for liability is real.

Even if the activity is totally off campus, school officials can do much to resolve the situation. Of great importance is that officials first sort out the overall relationships between the students involved.

The school can contact the parents of students suspected of initiating cyberbullying offenses, provide them with evidence of their children’s online activities, and offer to help the parents gain better control over their children’s Internet use. In such cases, it is strongly recommended that parents be urged to install monitoring software on their home computers. If parents know that their children are causing harm to others and fail to intervene to stop it, they can be held financially liable in civil-court proceedings.

There are also actions that the targets of bullying or their parents can take to stop the harassment and remove offending materials. These include contacting the relevant Web site, Internet-service provider, or cellphone company to file complaints. In some extreme cases, initiating a lawsuit or contacting the police may be justified.

Counselors can assist the targets of cyberbullying in coping with these situations by helping them disengage from the online community involved, or by showing them possible ways to stop the bullying while remaining in the community. Online communication itself provides interesting ways for helping “bullyproof” students. Because the impact of the bullying is invisible online, communications about it can be delayed until the target is able to respond in an assertive manner.

School administrators must recognize that students may be engaging in cyberbullying through the district’s Internet system or by cellphones used at school. Internet filtering software is not an effective management tool to prevent such online harm. It is far too easy for students to find ways around the filter.

Schools should respond to this new challenge by re-evaluating their Internet-use management strategies. It is important to decrease the amount of unstructured use of the Internet by students, “Internet recess,” and to increase the level of monitoring—both by staff members and through technical means. If students are engaging in cyberbullying at school and the school is not engaged in reasonable efforts to detect, prevent, and respond to it, the potential for liability is real.

Schools can play an important role, too, in educating parents about cyberbullying and helping them learn better ways of monitoring their children’s online activities. The education of students about proper Internet use should also be a priority.

New technologies are clearly an important part of young people’s lives. There is no way to block or prevent their use. But we must find better ways to give young people the knowledge, skills, and values to make good online choices—choices that are safe and demonstrate a respect for others. We must enable them, moreover, to respond effectively when friends and classmates do not show such respect. Above all, we adults simply must become more attentive to what is happening in the online lives of our children.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Cyberbullying

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