December 19, 2013

Stopping Bad Behavior, Online

A new report identifies steps that schools, social networks can take to prevent cyberbullying

As teens’ social lives become more entwined with the digital tools they use, parents have become concerned about the rise in cyberbullying and the potentially devastating effects it can have. And they aren’t the only ones. Increasingly, schools are being forced to deal with the consequences of cyberbullying, and social networks are also keen to prevent it from happening within their domains.

A new report from EDC shows that reducing cyberbullying will take a concerted and coordinated effort, and that teens, parents, schools, and social networking sites all have important roles to play in helping young people become better digital citizens.

“If parents and schools really want to prevent cyberbullying, then they have to start teaching digital citizenship,” says EDC’s Shari Kessel Schneider, the lead author of the report Social Media and Cyberbullying. “There’s simply not a way for parents to constantly monitor every image or message that is posted. They need to focus on broader strategies for keeping kids safe by teaching them to act responsibly and appropriately online.”

As part of the study conducted in 25 suburban communities around Boston, the EDC team interviewed school administrators and held focus groups with parents and students. They also reviewed district anti-bullying policies, comparing these documents to the model plan laid out by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The EDC report offers specific steps social networking sites can take to support efforts to halt cyberbullying. It suggests social networking sites can offer more support in educating parents, teachers, and administrators; more guidance in identifying constructive ways that social media tools could be used in the classroom; increased monitoring of what happens on their own sites; and more visible efforts to make teens aware of how to report offensive or bullying behavior. The research was funded by a Digital Citizenship Research Grant from Facebook.

A transparent approach

Cyberbullying often happens during off hours from school, but it affects relationships and academic performances in school. And as schools have beefed up their awareness, prevention, and disciplinary measures—Massachusetts passed one of the strictest anti-bullying laws in the country in 2010—the report found that many students remain reluctant to tell teachers about instances of cyberbullying, fearing that schools can do little to end the harassment occurring via electronic means.

“The majority of cyberbullying occurs outside of school, so it’s hard for administrators to know exactly what’s going on,” says Kessel Schneider. “They can’t observe it, so it is much more challenging to address than school bullying.”

While administrators often don’t see the texts, instant messages, or status updates that lead to instances of cyberbullying, they do see the effects in school.

Anna Nolin, assistant superintendent of Natick Public Schools in Massachusetts and a former middle school principal, recalls that when her students began to hang out on social networks a few years ago, instances of conflict that had started online began to seep into the school day.

“We knew we needed to do something about it,” she says.

Nolin helped Natick put in place a comprehensive approach to cyberbullying that includes discussions about digital citizenship, a set of core values that govern technology use, and specific responsive measures for when bullying does occur. These efforts start in middle school.

“Our troops are operationalized on all sides of this. We enlist peer leaders, administrators, and parents,” she says. “And we make sure students have allies they can talk to about cyberbullying issues.”

Nolin believes the approach is working, too. She shared a recent incident in which a student created an anonymous Twitter account to spread gossip around the high school. Student leaders stepped in to express their disapproval and also told school administrators. After administrators’ requests to close the offending account went ignored, the school threatened to block access to Twitter on the school’s network. The tweets stopped, and the account was removed.

“Students want to do the right thing,” says Nolin. “And they know we are going to follow through, too.”

Looking to social networks

Increasingly, social networks want to do the right thing, too. Facebook, for example, has recently created the Bullying Prevention Hub, specifically targeted towards teens, their parents, and educators. And both Twitter and Instagram have posted information about safety, security, and privacy on their websites.

But the report found that few parents and schools know about online cyberbullying-prevention efforts. As a result, tools that could be used to spark conversation about cyberbullying were not considered in the development of prevention strategies, school curricula, and parent outreach efforts.

It’s a missed opportunity, according to Kessel Schneider. She believes that social networking sites have an important role to play in helping schools address cyberbullying.

“Educators feel they are far behind students when it comes to social media. These sites could create tools that schools and parents could use with confidence, knowing they are accurate and up to date with their children’s current technology use,” she says.

Nolin agrees.

“Just as social networks have had a role in enabling bullying, they can have a role in ending it, too,” she says.