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February 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 5

High-Tech Cruelty

Online aggression isn't just traditional bullying with new tools. It's widespread, devastating, and knows no downtime.

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Credit: Aldo Murillo
Cyberbullying: In one way, it's nothing new. Kids have been bullying one another for generations. But looked at another way, cyberbullying is new. Teens can now use technology to expand the reach and extent of their harm in a way that previous generations couldn't.
When I was being cyberbullied I felt like I wanted to never go out of the house or talk to anyone ever again. It led me to depression, and the person who was bullying me … believed that it was funny.<ATTRIB>—17-year-old from New Jersey</ATTRIB>
Cyberbullying is willful and repeated harm inflicted through computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices. For the past few years, we have researched cyberbullying, created an online clearinghouse of relevant resources, and trained educators around the United States on how to respond to this phenomenon. We have seen that, for many teens, in the words of a 14-year-old we interviewed,Being bullied over the Internet is worse. It's torment and it hurts.
Cyberbullies use technology to harass, threaten, or humiliate their peers. A teenager might e-mail hurtful or intimidating messages to a fellow teen or promote gossip and rumors by texting his or her entire peer group about that person. Teens have created web pages, videos, and profiles on social-networking sites that are dedicated to making fun of another teen.
On other sites, teenagers can post peers' photographs and invite others to rate them in terms of physical attractiveness, often leading to hurtful comments. We've heard of young people using a cell phone to surreptitiously take photos—or videos—of someone in a bathroom, bedroom, or other private space and distributing these images widely online. A video of an unsuspecting classmate might show up on YouTube for the world to see, rate, tag, and discuss.

Anonymous, Widespread, and Devastating

I try to ignore her, but she turns everyone against me and makes my life miserable. She spreads awful rumors about me, and I just can't take it.<ATTRIB>—14-year-old from Texas</ATTRIB>
Cyberbullying is a growing problem because increasing numbers of young people use computers, cell phones, and other interactive devices as their main form of social interaction. Online is where teenagers gather. Two-thirds of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 go online every day to do schoolwork, keep in touch with friends, play games, or engage in other pursuits (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, &amp; Zickuhr, 2010).
Because online communication tools have become an important part of their lives, it's not surprising that some kids have decided to use the technology to be malicious or menacing toward others. Teens are able to connect to technology 24/7, so they are susceptible to victimization (and able to act on emotions and mean intentions) around the clock.
Some teens find it easier to cyber bully others than to torment them in person. Apart from the measure of anonymity that comes with posting online, it's easier to type out a hateful comment to someone than to speak it face-to-face. When a person uses hurtful words in real life, the speaker can generally see the effect right away; but in cyberspace, no swift response shows the in appropriateness and effects of his or her actions. Online interaction is unsupervised—and because some adults have been slow to respond to cyberbullying, many perpetrators feel there are few consequences for their actions.
Cyberbullying also crosses geographic boundaries, which magnifies the hurt. The Internet has opened up the world to users who interact across state and national lines. For the most part, this is a good thing. But it complicates the bullying issue because kids freely post or send whatever they want online without considering how that content might reach far beyond their intended audience.
Estimates of the number of youth who experience cyberbullying vary widely, ranging from 10 to 40 percent, depending on the age of the participants, how the behavior was measured, and the way the study was designed. In our 2010 survey of more than 4,400 randomly selected 11- to 18-year-old students, we defined cyberbullying as "when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online, or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text message, or when someone posts something online about another person that they don't like."
Using this definition, approximately 20 percent of those we surveyed indicated they had been a victim at some point in their lifetime. About this same number admitted to cyberbullying others, and about 10 percent said they had been both a victim and a bully. These figures are consistent with the weight of the research available and comparable to the results of seven similar surveys we've conducted over the last six years (Hinduja &amp; Patchin, 2009).
We have observed the many devastating effects cyberbullying has on teens' "real-world" lives. Many targets of bullying report feeling depressed, sad, angry, and frustrated. As one teenager told us,It makes me hurt both physically and mentally. It scares me and takes away all my confidence. It makes me feel sick and worthless.
Kids who experience cyberbullying are often afraid or embarrassed to go to school. Our research has revealed a link between cyberbullying and low self-esteem, family problems, academic problems, school violence, and delinquent behaviors. Those who have been cyberbullied are more likely to struggle with these emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems than those who have not. Cyberbullied youth report having more suicidal thoughts than those who haven't experienced such harassment. There have been a number of tragic incidents in which youth who were bullied online ended up taking their own lives.
Let's look at what schools can do to prevent cyberbullying.

Steps Toward Prevention

Educate the Community

The most important preventive step schools can take is to educate the school community about responsible Internet use and the harmful nature of online aggression. Administrators should take time to learn about these issues and share information with teachers and counselors.
For example, a school could hold a schoolwide assembly or the district might convene a staff meeting on youth Internet safety and bring in a specialist to explain cyberbullying, provide case studies, and discuss the school's role. Cyberbullying experts might train teachers and administrators on how to talk to students about the issue and how to respond to any incidents. Our website (www.cyberbullying.us) includes many downloadable resources to help schools educate their communities and formulate a comprehensive school strategy.
Students need to know that all forms of bullying are wrong and that those who engage in bullying will be subject to discipline. It's vital to reinforce this message in all classes that regularly use technology—for example, by posting signs at computer workstations reminding students of the rules of acceptable use. Teachers should set aside time to discuss cyberbullying when they discuss broader issues of bullying and harassment. They should engage students in conversations about negative online experiences and possible responses or solutions. Vignettes like the following can spark dialogue with staff, students, or parents:At home one night, Stan received several e-mail messages from "Lincoln High Class of 2013" saying that he was stupid and that he shouldn't waste his time going to school. One message said that if he came to school he would be sorry. Someone also posted on Stan's Facebook page that he was too stupid to function.
Ideally, administrators would bring teachers, parents, and students together to talk about how each might respond to similar scenarios. Parents will probably want guidance about how they might spot clues that their child is a target like Stan—or a bully. Students can talk about what kinds of appropriate and inappropriate actions they see online; they may have different perspectives from adults of what constitutes abuse. The vignette raises the question of whether the school should intervene because the bullying was not on school grounds. Administrators should take the opportunity to clarify the school's policy on cyberbullying.

Develop a School Policy and Plan

School district personnel should proactively develop a plan of action on cyberbullying before any serious incidents occur at school; this may even ensure that none occur. An effective plan should include these elements: a specific definition of the terms harassment, intimidation, and bullying (including the electronic variants); graduated consequences for infractions; procedures for reporting and investigating incidents; specific language noting that if a student's speech or behavior outside of school results in "substantial disruption of the learning environment" or interferes with the rights of others, the student can be disciplined; and procedures for preventing bullying (such as staff training or curriculum enhancements). Schools might spell out a variety of remedial actions, such as sitting down with a counselor, drafting a behavior plan, limiting extracurricular activities—even taking civil and criminal law actions.
Schools should review their harassment and bullying policies to see whether they allow for disciplining students who engage in cyberbullying. If the policy doesn't specifically mention cyberbullying, such language should be added. It is best to disseminate this policy early in the school year so parents and students understand what behaviors are within the school's purview and what unacceptable behaviors will be subject to discipline.
Every district should have a comprehensive acceptable use policy governing the use of technology provided by schools or used in schools. Have both parents and students sign this policy at the beginning of every school year. In addition, students need to know which (if any) portable electronic devices are allowed on campus. Many teenagers possess smartphones and other devices that connect to the Internet, enabling them to engage in—or be affected by—cyberbullying during school hours. Guidelines for when and where such devices may be used and what actions cross the line in using them acceptably (such as photographing another person on school property without permission) should be clearly explained.

Responding to Cyberbullying

Eventually I started getting nasty texts and e-mails and messages on MSN about my appearance and personality. I started getting emotionally depressed at home and at school, and my work was getting affected. … In the end I showed my parents and teachers and they had a word with her. It's not so bad now.<ATTRIB>—13-year-old</ATTRIB>
A teacher who spots relatively minor forms of cyberbullying may be able to address the problem on his or her own by talking to the students involved and explaining that all forms of bullying are wrong and subject to discipline. It's essential to address any incident quickly. Even seemingly trivial actions like online name calling or social exclusion should be dealt with so behaviors don't escalate.
First, the teacher should be sure the target of bullying is safe—and show compassion and empathy to that student. If necessary, the bully and the victim should be separated. Teachers may need to investigate and gather evidence to see how extensive the bullying is and monitor whether it is ongoing.
Students need to know that even relatively minor behaviors will be taken seriously and are subject to school sanction. Schools should come up with creative responses, particularly for harassment that doesn't bring significant harm. In some cases, discussing the incident with the bully's parents will be enough. Schools might encourage activities that raise awareness about the issue, such as student-created public service announcements about cyberbullying. Older students might give a brief presentation to younger students about the importance of using technology in ethically sound ways.
Because students are often reluctant to discuss cyberbullying experiences with adults, it's a good idea to create an anonymous reporting system. Some schools designate one or more staff members to serve as a "trustee," someone students know is trained to cope with cyberbullying.
More serious behaviors (such as ongoing online humiliation) may require the assistance of a school counselor, assistant principal, school resource officer, and possibly the service provider connected to the application the bully employed. There may be occasions where a formal response from the school is warranted—particularly if there is a serious threat toward another student, if the bullied person no longer feels comfortable coming to school, or when bullying continues despite attempts to stop it. If extreme measures are required, it's important to clearly demonstrate, with evidence, that the bullying was interfering with learning at school or threatening a student's safety.
An important reality to keep in mind is that cyberbullying occurs in two primary ways, which call for two different kinds of response. First, it can take place on campus through school-owned computers and the campus network or through personal devices like cell phones used on school grounds. Cyberbullying incidents that occur at school are well within a school's legal authority.
Second—and more commonly— cyberbullying occurs off campus using home computers or other devices and a nonschool Internet connection. In these situations, school administrators are often reluctant to get involved. Although this is muddy legal water and courts typically support students' rights to freedom of expression, courts have upheld the actions of administrators who disciplined students for off-campus actions. In these cases, to legally justify intervening, school officials must show that a student's misbehavior substantially or materially disrupted learning, interfered with the educational mission or school discipline, or threatened other students. Basically, educators must show that they had to stop normal day-to-day school activities to address the behavior that occurred off-site or to respond to school-based consequences of that behavior (for example, a spike in students using cell phones during class as many of them gossip about a malicious incident that happened on Facebook).

Acknowledge the New Bullying

To confront cyberbullying, it's essential to develop a safe, respectful school climate. Research in the last 30 years has identified the benefits of a positive school climate, including its role in preventing traditional bullying. One study in New Brunswick, Canada, found that a strong disciplinary climate—the "extent to which students internalize the norms and values of the school, and conform to them"—reduced bullying among students (Ma, 2001).
What's true of traditional bullying applies to online bullying. One of our studies found that students who experienced cyberbullying, either as victims or perpetrators, perceived their school climate as poorer than did students who were not involved in online bullying.
Cyberbullying has become part of students' online lives, and it won't be eradicated easily. But a positive campus environment—with teachers who show emotional support, a strong focus on academics and learning, and a clear message that certain conduct from students and staff alike will not be tolerated—will go a long way in reducing the frequency of cyberbullying and the devastating consequences that trail in its wake.

Hinduja, S., &amp; Patchin, J.W. (2009). Bullying beyond the schoolyard. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., &amp; Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social media and young adults. Retrieved from Pew Internet and American Life Project at www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Social-Media-and-Young-Adults.aspx

Ma, X. (2001). Bullying and being bullied: To what extent are bullies also victims? American Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 351–370.

End Notes

1 The Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the U.S. Department of Justice provides a model Acceptable Use Agreement that schools can adapt, at www.cybercrime.gov.

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