Sara, a high school student, logs in to her Facebook account only to be confronted with cruel and nasty remarks posted by classmates. She feels angry, humiliated, and afraid that everyone at school will see such postings. Sara has become the target of cyberbullying, and ensuing incidences occur. Consequently, her grades begin to drop, she becomes preoccupied with correspondences on Facebook, and she experiences intense anxiety about attending school.
Conduits for Cyberbullying
Unfortunately, stories like Sara's are not that uncommon. Given the exceedingly high number of school-aged youth actively participating in online social networking sites, one cannot ignore the often deleterious and at times tragic effects associated with this social phenomenon. Cyberbullying is defined as bullying through instant messaging, e-mail, a chat room, or cell phone messaging. The 2006 National Crime Prevention Council Cyberbullying Research Report found that of the 824 middle and high school students surveyed, some 43 percent reported being a victim of cyberbullying within the past 12 months. Additionally, 81 percent believed that fellow peers engaged in cyberbullying as a means of "joking around."
Cyberbullies do not have to be strong or fast; they just need access to a cell phone or computer and a desire to terrorize. Anyone can be a cyberbully, and such persons usually have few worries about having face-to-face confrontation with their victims. In fact, the anonymity of cyberbullying may cause students who normally would not bully in the tradition physical ways to engage in the behavior in the digital realm.
Cyberbullying is not just normal teenage behavior that must be accepted in 2010. The consequences may be depression, poor self-image, academic difficulties, and even suicide. Therefore, it is very important for adults to be aware of the behavior and take efforts to reduce it. Numerous victims of cyberbullying have committed suicide. Several of those cases were covered extensively by the national media.
School systems typically adopt a zero- tolerance policy regarding school violence; however, they haven't consistently applied this to out-of-school behavior. What transpires in the virtual world greatly affects school climate; therefore, there exists a need to broaden the scope of school violence to include student interaction on social networking sites as well as with cell phone messaging. Court cases have concluded that school officials are within their legal rights to intervene when off-campus cyberbullying substantially disrupts the educational environment. Educators are strongly encouraged to implement the following steps:
- Clearly define cyberbullying and its consequences in the school handbook, and review it with students and parents.
- Provide training to all school staff and parents about cyberbullying. Parents need to be educated about the potential dangers of the Internet and text messaging, and encouraged to discuss appropriate cyberbehavior with their child and to supervise and monitor their communications. Parents need to remind their children that cybercommunications are a privilege and not a right, and that violations of appropriate cyberbehavior will result in the loss of privileges.
- Encourage students not to forward cyberbullying messages but instead to support the victim. Each victim needs to be encouraged to print out the offending messages and to give a copy to a parent or school staff member so that appropriate actions can be taken.
- Develop a school violence and antibullying contract or pledge that applies to both in-school behaviors as well as outside, and have students and parents both read and sign it.
- Restrict students' use of cell phones and other electronic devices while at school. Establish specific guidelines when such use is appropriate and acceptable.
Scott Poland is a faculty member at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) and a past president of the National Association of SchoolPsychologists. Michael Pusateri, a doctoral
student in clinical psychology at NSU, contributed to this article.