Amanda Todd. Rebecca Sedwick. Hope Witsell. You may be familiar with these names. All three of these students committed suicide as the result of cyber-bullying. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It results in more than 4,500 deaths annually. Not all youth suicides are the result of cyber-bullying. Some are the result of traditional bullying, perhaps a poor home life or any other number of causes. Still, the amount of cyber-bullying is now the fastest growing form of bullying, according to PeacePraxis Educational Services. I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation by them and I learned a lot. Going back to the CDC for a moment, they also report that 8% (roughly 1 student in 12) of students in grades 9-12 had attempted suicide within the 12 month period prior to their survey. Think about that for a moment. That implies that at least two students in typical class had actually attempted suicide. In addition, the CDC reports that 157,000 youths between the ages of 10-24 receive medical care in emergency rooms for self-inflicted injuries. As the fastest growing type of bullying, many people may have heard about it and know a little about it, but are not as familiar with it as they should be. As educators, we should all be as informed as we can possibly be on the subject. Cyber-bullying has several key differences from traditional bullying:
- Emotional vs. Physical
Location Unlike bullying that affected previous generations, cyber-bullying has one major difference that makes it more pervasive. That is that it can literally happen anywhere! Previously, bullying victims could always look forward to the safety provided by their homes and family. That is not the case with cyber-bullying. Children are so connected with technology these days that they have almost no escape when they enter their own homes. The next alert sound from their cell phone could be a continuation of a campaign against them. In fact, the look on a child’s face from an alert on their phone may provide some insight as to whether or not a child is being targeted.
Secrecy Another major difference between traditional bullying and cyber-bullying is the ability for the aggressor to remain anonymous. Apps such as Secret, Whisper and Yik-Yak are all based on the premise of keeping their identity hidden from being known. Even in traditional social media sites such as Facebook, it is very easy to create a disposable online persona that is only meant to be used to target others for cyber-bullying. In some cases, the aggressor and the victim may not even know each other. There are people that randomly pick a target and attack the child. It may even be a complete stranger pretending to be someone that they know from their school – it’s a lot easier than you think to do that. In many cases, what the victim posts on their own account can be used against them. By arming the aggressor with personal information, they can appear to be someone known, even close to them. Take a look at this video and you will see what I mean. One of the biggest ways that kids can help prevent themselves from being targeted is to minimize their digital footprint. The less information that is posted on their page is less ammunition that can be used against them. Another recommendation is to adjust the person’s privacy settings so that only their friends can see what they post. In the video above, had Sarah done that, she might have prevented some of the people in the video from learning personal information. I say “might” because once a real online friend shares something from your page, even if her privacy settings stopped others from seeing it directly, once it’s on someone else’s page, their privacy settings determine who can see it from there.
Attitude Perhaps the reason why cyber-bullying is becoming as prevalent as it has become is because many students do not see it as being such as big deal. A search for “#cyberbullying” on social media sites is likely to reveal many comments made by people that criticize the people that object to cyber-bullying! In an article that I wrote for my local paper, I mention one such comment made by a person who suggested that people who were upset by cyber-bullying were wimps and needed to “man up”. I have often wondered how bullies would feel if they realized that their victim harmed themselves as a result of being targeted. Most would probably (genuinely or not) appear surprised and apologetic about what resulted from their actions. In the case of Rebecca Sedwick, the 14 year old accused of bullying her responded by posted the following on her Facebook account: “Yes IK I bullied REBECCA and she killed her self but IDGAF.” Nice, huh? Does that say something about us as a society?
Emotional vs. Physical As someone who was bullied a bit in my early teen years, I would sometimes come home from school with a bruise or a black eye. To be honest, I felt it was a bit of a badge of honor, as I didn’t give the bully an easy victory. Don’t get me wrong, I often got it worse than I gave it, mostly because I was pretty small at the time and was an easy target. Cyberbullying does not leave any physical evidence behind. The wounds are hidden and may not be easily visible. If unnoticed, it can leave the victim feeling like they are alone, making their situation even worse. If you’ve ever watched Amanda Todd’s video, you know what I mean. One of the telltale signs of cyber-bullying is a change in behavior, especially when it comes to using technology. Are your students using the computer or cell phone less than they have in the past? That may not be as visible in the school environment, where many schools prohibit students from using social media or cell phones while at school. While I do not pretend to be a child psychologist, what happens online is likely to make an impact in the “real” world. Do you see any changes in how a student acts? Have they become isolated from others? Do they seem depressed? These can all be signs of a cyber-bullying victim.
What Teachers Can Do In acknowledging the rise in cyber-bullying and other unethical online behavior, New Jersey recently became the first state to have mandatory social media classes for middle school students, beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. This will certainly help, but most of you probably don’t live in New Jersey and even if you do, there is still more that can be done. Perhaps the best thing that anyone can do to help a cyber-bullying victim is to encourage students to practice the concept of Positive Slamming. I learned about this concept by attending a presentation by Christa Tinari from PeacePraxis. It means that when one student is bullied online, everyone else needs to respond immediately to provide supportive comments. This not only lets the bully know that their actions are not welcome, but more importantly, it helps the victim realize that they are not alone, which can be extremely important to them.
For my daughter’s school, I created a closed Facebook group for any parent of a child that goes to her school. There are 600+ students in the school and we have roughly 130 members. By keeping it a closed group, we can talk about anything that we wish to, all while keeping snoops and predators at bay. By now, most of the new requests to join come from people that already have at least one Facebook friend in the group. While we have not had any issues of cyber-bullying come up in the group so far, if it happens, we can work together to help each other. It’s probably less likely in an elementary school, but I expect that I’ll probably create another such group when she moves up to middle school and then high school and many of the same parents will come along for the ride. As they used to say on the GI Joe cartoon, “Knowing is half the battle.” There are plenty of online sites that can help you learn more on the topic and knowledge is the key. Here are three sites that I recommend to everyone: I absolutely love http://cyberbullying.us/. I find a lot of useful information here. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created www.stopbullying.gov. Take a look. I know that you will find something useful here. Lastly, I have to recommend my own Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ParentsGuidetoSocialMedia. I include lots of current events, news, tips and more to help parents keep their kids safe online.
Takeaway Just as social media is not going away anytime soon, cyber-bullying is not going away. It will most likely be a never-ending fight – one that is worth fighting, no matter what the outlook is. I once had someone on Twitter tell me that I was wasting my time doing this, since it was a lot of work with too little return. I guess that he and I have two different values and outlooks on life. Education, awareness and dialogue are the best ways to tackle this problem. Imagine if everyone that reads this article is able to save one child from being added to the list of names at the start of this article. Isn’t that worth it?
Thank you to, Joe Yeager from http://socialmediaclub.org/profile/jyeagerblog