What is cyberbullying and why is it important?
Cyberbullying is any unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and that takes place over digital devices. It includes sending, posting or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else and can sometimes cross into unlawful behavior, according to StopBullying.gov.
Cyberbullying is problematic for many reasons but has a particular impact because of the nature of the internet. Because it revolves around posts or communication taking place online, cyberbullying is inherently permanent and persistent. Also, because these exchanges are taking place over phones and computers, it may be more difficult for teachers (and parents) to know it is happening, and a good bit of it may be happening outside of school hours and off campus.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that 28% of students between the ages of 10-18 have been cyberbullied at least once, and 87% of students have witnessed cyberbullying occurring at least one time. These staggering numbers, along with the possible repercussions of class disruptions, student depression, and even suicide, make this an issue that schools must make an active effort to prevent.
How are schools uniquely positioned to fight cyberbullying?
It is difficult to take a problem as large as cyberbullying and determine who is best suited to solve it. Although much of the actual bullying is taking place over phones and computers outside of school, schools have some advantages when it comes to combatting these actions.
Particularly in schools with small-to-medium class sizes, teachers have a unique opportunity to get to know their students through one-on-one interactions that they might not have with any other adult in their lives other than their parents. Not only does this make teachers more likely to spot the characteristics of being bullied, but also allows them to intervene when necessary. Ideally, these one-on-one interactions lead to relationship-building between students and teachers, where students feel comfortable talking to their teachers about problems.
Schools also have an advantage when it comes to fighting cyberbullying because the lessons can be integrated into other parts of the curriculum, so anti-bullying content does not come across as condescending or preachy to students but fits in as more of a seamless part of their regular school activities. Some suggestions include social studies lessons on historical imbalances of power and how they were addressed by prominent figures, or ELA lessons that focus on reading, interpreting, or writing works that touch on the subject of cyberbullying.
Schools that use online components or learning management systems for delivering course content or facilitating online discussions for students have a particularly unique position in fighting cyberbullying by teaching and overseeing appropriate online behavior among students. A system like Twine or Edsby, for example, requires all users to use real names, have a photo uploaded and attach their name and photo to anything they post. There is also a process for reporting off-topic or inappropriate discussions to the teacher/staff member responsible for the students. This level of accountability makes students less likely to take advantage of the online system and reinforces positive interactions among classmates.
Importance of anti-cyberbullying initiatives
Anti-cyberbullying initiatives, along with many social-emotional lessons, are sometimes called into question at schools for taking time away from academics or costing money that many schools frankly do not have to spare. However, an increase in cyberbullying over time, potential disruptions to class, and the mental health issues created by cyberbullying have made it an issue that schools must actively address.
Cyberbullying vs. bullying
Prior to smartphones being easily obtained, school bullying consisted primarily of physical and verbal altercations that took place at lunch or on the bus, and schools were equipped to deal with these incidents by staffing more supervision in these areas, installing cameras on buses, and other similar measures.
As of a 2012 survey by the University of British Columbia, though, roughly twice as many students had admitted to being involved in cyberbullying versus traditional bullying, and that number has likely continued to increase over the last several years.
As school employees, you’ve probably witnessed how many in-person conflicts that take place at school are a result of comments or messages that took place online. In fact, research shows that when students are cyberbullied, they are likely facing some kind of bullying or harassment at school as well. Schools are legally empowered to discipline students for actions that take place outside of school if it causes a disruption to the learning environment, but it can often be difficult to trace anonymous communications back to where they started, and this kind of investigation can take a lot of time.
Depression and suicide
Pediatric researchers have found that there is a distinct link between depression rates among teens and their exposure to cyberbullying. Additional research indicates that victims of cyberbullying report even higher rates of depression than victims of physical bullying. The Megan Meier Foundation, named in honor of a high school student who committed suicide following an extended cyberbullying incident, compiles regular statistics on bullying and cyberbullying’s impacts on student mental health, the most alarming of which is that victims of cyberbullying are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide as their classmates. With suicide being the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34, reducing instances of depression and suicide among young people must be a priority.
Lesson plans and activities to use in the classroom
Take advantage of law enforcement help
Many local law enforcement agencies have community outreach programs, where officers will visit schools to speak on a variety of topics related to public safety. If you’re looking to incorporate anti-cyberbullying curriculum at a school level, it might be useful to check in with your local department and see if there’s already a developed presentation that could be given at your school. Since most cyberbullying extends beyond the walls of your school, police involvement is not unusual, and the officers are likely to want to put a stop to it as much as you do. Some common approaches taken by officers are educating students on the laws related to cyberbullying and the consequences of breaking those laws, speaking about instances of suicide as a result of these crimes, and/or making a connection to a local student who was a victim of cyberbullying. While not all departments will be prepared to speak on the topic, it is becoming more prevalent as cyberbullying becomes more commonplace.
K-5 lesson plan
For elementary students, bullying might not yet be a part of their social interactions, but setting the groundwork for healthy, positive computer and phone use is the best defense against future cyberbullying. Perhaps the best already-assembled set of cyber education lessons are produced by the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot Elementary School Cyber Education Initiative. This organization has some of the most thorough lesson plans a teacher could ask for, from step-by-step breakdowns of how to manage class time, to slides introducing topics to students and leading discussions, and even interactive computer activities to reinforce the concepts introduced in class. The CESCEI includes three sets of lessons, broken down into smaller age groups within the elementary school level, so there is something age appropriate, no matter which grades you’re targeting. Downloading the curriculum requires filling out a form, but there’s no charge for the material.
6-8 lesson plan
By the time students have reached middle school, many of them have experienced some form of bullying and it is time to switch lessons from general computer safety to approaching the topic of cyberbullying directly. Common Sense Education has an excellent lesson plan that focuses on how to stand up for those being cyberbullied. This lesson includes a reading and discussion activity to help students put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand what it feels like to be treated unfairly. There are also handouts to take home to involve parents in the conversation, and the materials are available in English and Spanish to make it accessible to a wide range of students and parents. You have to create an account on the website to get access to the lesson, but there is no charge to do so.
9-12 lesson plan
Because of increased access to unsupervised internet browsing combined with the social pressures many students face in high school, teenagers are particularly susceptible to cyberbullying and may be unwilling or reluctant to talk to an adult about it. Lessons that focus on social norms, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s lesson plan, are a good way to integrate discussions of cyberbullying into a logical place in the curriculum alongside discussions of civic responsibilities and foundations of societies. This lesson incorporates video, discussion, analyzing cartoons and advertisements, and reading and interpreting data as a way to get students thinking and talking about online interactions and the ideal ways to use the internet. Many of these skills directly align with state and national standards, making it easy for teachers to use the lesson in an academic class. This lesson plan is free and does not require any registration to access.
More resources to assist
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with the task of combatting cyberbullying at your school, know that you’re not alone and there are dozens of resources online that can assist you and your coworkers in your initiatives. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best sites on the web for research-based resources, lesson plans, videos, and more.