Less than half of U.S. states have policies to combat cyberbullying in schools despite recent media coverage of students who committed suicide after suffering persistent online harassment.
Every state except Montana has passed anti-bullying legislation, and most schools have developed policies in line with those laws. Eighteen states have made cyberbullying a crime, even while about half of young people have been the victim of online harassment at some point, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.
About 10 to 20 percent of youths experience cyberbullying regularly, and victims are more likely to have low self-esteem and consider suicide than are other students, the center found.
“Cyberbullying is a new issue—it’s no longer about horseplay or physical punching inside the school,” says David Zhao, president and co-founder of the nonprofit End to Cyber Bullying. “It’s abuse 24/7.”
Online, bullies have unlimited access to their victims and the harassment is often permanent, he adds.
Suicide rates increasing
Cases of suicide due to bullying are relatively rare, but suicide rates for pre-teens and teens have increased in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For children aged 5 to 14, suicide rates rose from 0.5 per 100,000 in 2007 to 0.7 in 2010. For teens, the number grew from 9.7 in 2007 to 10.5 in 2010, the highest rate in over a decade.
A 2008 Yale School of Medicine report found that school-aged bullying victims were two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than were other students.
In September, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Lakeland, Fla., committed suicide after other girls had harassed her for months via text messages and social media. Two of the alleged bullies, aged 12 and 14, were arrested in October, according to published accounts. The three girls attended Polk County Public Schools, though Sedwick changed middle schools this year due to the bullying.
This happened even after Florida legislators had created a cyberbullying law for public schools in July. The new law defines bullying as “teasing, social exclusion, threat, intimidation, physical violence, or emotional pain or discomfort.” If the bullying interferes with student learning, schools can take action, even if it takes place at home. Only 11 states have laws that include this provision, according to the Center for Cyberbullying Research.
There is often a physical component to cyberbullying that takes place at school, says Julie Hertzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Center. But the Florida law’s inclusion of afterschool online activity is important because technology plays an integral role in students’ lives both in and out of school, she adds.
Evolving school response
As 1-to-1 and BYOD policies grow in districts nationwide, administrators need to ensure that cyberbullying and digital citizenship are addressed in assemblies and classes, Hertzog says. Digital citizenship refers to appropriate behavior in the online community.
“Our response to cyberbullying continues to evolve—as technology evolves and kids find various ways to use it, we need to continue to respond to that,” she adds. “It’s a challenge to keep up, but really important that we do.”
Some state laws require schools to create a safe and supportive climate to prevent bullying, which includes promoting diversity and tolerance. Part of this safe climate is also ensuring students have an easy way to report bullying, Hertzog says.
There are a plethora of new apps and programs for students to anonymously report bullying to school officials. These options can help witnesses take action without feeling threatened themselves.
Social media sites are also beginning to take action. Facebook announced in October the launch in Maryland schools of a first-in-the-nation program to combat cyberbullying. The company will give school staff a direct channel to report bullying on the site, and will take down any hurtful posts that are not taken care of within 24 hours through the site’s standard reporting system, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler said in a statement.
One million students experienced cyberbullying on Facebook in 2011, according to a Consumer Reports survey.
“It’s important that both social media sites and schools have reporting features,” Hertzog says. “We find that parents are most frustrated by sites that don’t have the option to interact with somebody about the use of the site, so this sounds like an excellent strategy.”