Schools and parents have a role in ending cyberbullying

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

LACK OF MATURITY, lack of supervision, and technology that can transmit messages instantly to millions of people: This is the volatile cocktail that lies at the root of cyberbullying. Today's high school and middle school students have been texting, e-mailing, instant messaging and posting on Facebook since they could reach a keyboard. But when this extensive technological knowledge combines with the raging hormones, limited impulse control and failure to understand consequences that mark the teenage years, the results can be devastating.

Cyberbullies can be popular "mean girls" or tech-savvy loners who use their skills to wreak havoc on a social hierarchy that excludes them. Bullying can be intentional or inadvertent -- a message accidentally forwarded, a remark taken out of context. It can be a minor annoyance or, drawing in strangers through hate speech or provocative images, it can escalate far beyond the schoolyard. Because of all these factors, it is difficult to craft a one-size-fits-all rule or policy.

Estimates on the percentage of students affected by cyberbullying range widely -- from about 15 to 35 percent in scientific surveys to more than 80 percent in a cybersafety advocate's informal poll. Policing all infractions would be an administrative nightmare. But cases such as the suicide of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Mass., in January, after she had been bullied on Facebook, offer vivid reminders of the devastating impact such behavior can have. Even when it fails to go so far, this bullying, following students out of school hallways into the privacy of their homes, can have a debilitating effect on daily life. To combat it, parents and educators must stay vigilant and establish clear expectations for conduct online.

Schools are generally empowered to deal with off-campus activities when they have a negative impact on campus life. Because anything created online is accessible from anywhere at any time, this line can be hard to draw. Schools can help themselves combat the problem by clearly banning cyberbullying in their acceptable-use policies and honor codes, as they do traditional bullying.

But ultimately it is the role of parents to establish the terms of their children's activity online, setting clear limits and responding supportively and definitively if things go awry. Often, teens fail to mention cyberbullying to parents because they fear they will respond by simply shutting down their online accounts. Instead, parents should offer positive support to counteract the negative message of cyberbullying, while responding swiftly through appropriate channels -- either using social networks' established systems to block and flag malicious content or by calling the police if bullying has escalated to harassment.

When students were asked in one scientific poll why their peers engage in cyberbullying, 81 percent said it was because they found it funny. Simply changing this attitude can have a huge impact. Creating clear expectations for student behavior and teaching teens and tweens about the consequences of their online actions can go a long way toward changing the culture in which such bullying thrives.

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