With pupils who are often more computer-literate than teachers, informed CPD coordinators can do a lot to combat cyberbullying says Dr Jo Bruce
The increasing popularity of social networking sites such as Bebo, Myspace and Facebook, use of mobile technologies for making and sharing images and the potential to share and disseminate personal information online are an increasingly integral part of the everyday social lives and relationships of young people. At the same time, the potential for young people to use these technologies to actively engage in, or to be the victims of, online harassment or cyberbullying has emerged as an issue that requires a multifaceted response involving a variety of key stakeholders. Teachers have a key role to play in preventing and responding to this type of behaviour. This article outlines the need for CPD as part of this response.
It is important that teachers understand the behaviours and experiences associated with cyberbullying, particularly how the involved technologies and services work, and are being used by young people.
Cyberbullying involves the use of new information and communication devices and services, (including email, instant messaging, text messages, mobile phones and social networking websites) to bully, harass or intimidate an individual or group of young people. Example behaviours include:
- Spreading of gossip or untrue information by blog, email, mobile phone or social networking sites.
- Posting or forwarding of private information, messages and pictures online or by mobile phone.
- Threats and abuse made by email, mobile phone or comments left on social networking sites.
- Exclusion from online groups.
- Impersonation of the victim and creation of a fake profile page which is humiliating and/or contains false information.
- Filming harassment and intimidation on a mobile phone or digital camera and disseminating it online or circulating it among peer groups by email or mobile phone.
Cyberbullying: prevalence, experiences and consequences
Research suggests that a significant number of young people experience bullying and harassment online. Smith, Mahdavi et al (2006) found that 22% of their sample had been victims of cyberbullying at least once, and 6.6% had been victims more than once, while 33% of the victims had not reported the incident. This is not a new phenomenon, and research conducted by the Cyberspace Research Unit (O’Connell et al, 2002) found that 20% of children aged 9-16 years had been harassed in a chatroom.
Bullying is widely recognised to cause severe, psychological/emotional, social and physical problems for victims and their families. In many respects there are psychological, motivational and experiential similarities between ‘traditional’ and ‘cyber’ bullying.
The reasons for which perpetrators engage in these behaviours, and the experiences and consequences of their behaviours for the victims, are similar to bullying behaviour offline. However, there are a number of characteristics of new technologies and services which can intensify harassment and, therefore, the negative psychological consequences of cyberbullying for victims.
Research suggests that cyberbullying may have a greater impact on the physical, social and psychological wellbeing of young people as it potentially invades domestic spaces. The home is a ‘safe haven’ from harassment for young people who are being bullied at school or in the community. However, bullying through mobile and Internet technologies allows perpetrators to follow their victims into previously protected spaces and intensify their harassment.
In addition to this, the central importance of mobile phones, email and social networking to the identities, friendships and everyday lives of young people may make them reluctant to switch off or restrict their use of these technologies as they are important for communicating with friends and organising their lives.
The importance of these technologies to young people may also lead victims not to report the problems they experience due to fear that their access to them will be blocked, further isolating them from their friends and social networks. Finally, the ability to post comments online, send emails and to film and circulate harassment via mobile phone also allows the dissemination of bullying content within existing social networks at school or in the local community. This increases the potential audience of bystanders who have seen or are aware of harassment, potentially increasing the intensity of harassment and associated negative social and psychological consequences for the victim.
A number of issues associated with this form of behaviour require research to further understanding and inform educational and training strategies for teachers. These include: how the management of personal information and identity online can make young people vulnerable to cyberbullying; the importance of social networks, relationships and communication to young people, and their role in the cyberbullying; and the experiences and outcomes for the victims of this form of behaviour and their families. Understanding these issues is also important for the development and implementation of effective strategies for preventing and responding to cyberbullying within schools.
It is widely recognised that there is a skills and knowledge gap between adults and young people in relation to their use of new technologies and services, as well as the associated risks to which they may be exposed online. This is a central barrier to the development and implementation of effective education or preventive and responsive strategies for dealing with cyberbullying. As early and enthusiastic adopters, young people are the first to exploit the functionality of new technologies and services creatively, communicatively and educationally. Those with a daily responsibility for the welfare and education of young people are often the last to acquire this knowledge, despite often being the first to deal with the consequences of their online behaviour and experiences.
A variety of educational and informational strategies are aimed at closing this knowledge gap. These include: public awareness campaigns; online information and help resources; training courses for adults; and educational resources for young people that can be embedded within the curriculum (eg in PSHE or ICT lessons). The majority of these materials can be incorporated into formal education strategies within schools. However, there is a need for more formal training programmes for education and child welfare professionals to develop deeper understanding of the following key issues:
- How new technologies work and are used by young people.
- How use can expose them to online risks, including cyberbullying.
- Effective risk reduction strategies.
- Effective ways in which to talk to young people about these issues.
For an example of such training, see the box below.
The University Certificate in Child Safety on the Internet
The University Certificate in Child Safety on the Internet was validated by the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire during the last academic year. This activity-based and reflexive distance learning course lasts 14 weeks and uses a virtual learning environment. The course content focuses on learning to use technologies and services that are popular with young people, the risks associated with their use, and appropriate risk reduction strategies. It aims to develop knowledge about effective ways to encourage safe and responsible use of ICTs by young people, and to develop the skills to effectively communicate with them about these issues. On successful completion of the course, students are awarded a Level 1 university certificate worth 20 credits. The course is open to teachers and education and child welfare services professionals, and can be taken as part of CPD. The course includes a learning module on cyberbullying, and other aspects of the course contribute to providing students with the knowledge and skills to prevent and respond to this type of online behaviour.
For further information
Guidance and resources
Once relevant staff have developed an understanding of how new technologies are potentially used by young people for cyberbullying, they will be in a better position to develop and implement effective preventive and responsive strategies within schools. They may also need to review and update relevant anti-bullying and behaviour policies, as well as the acceptable use policy for technology. All schools should have such policies and these should be adapted or expanded to cover the disciplinary, reporting and supporting issues associated with cyberbullying. Again, this requires that the staff responsible have a clear understanding of the ways in which technologies can be used by young people in this way to enable them to amend polices accordingly.
Policy amendments will also need to be accompanied by a consideration of how responsibilities for preventing and responding to cyberbullying are managed by staff. This will depend on the existing arrangements within the school for dealing with bullying, but the balance between involvement of ICT and pastoral care staff in dealing with this issue will also need to be considered. This should also include exploring the following key issues:
- How complaints of cyberbullying will be progressed.
- Who has the responsibility of liaising with service providers.
- How this process will be managed.
- The evidence required by service providers to take action.
- The action that the school can reasonably expect to be taken by service providers.
- The limitations of service providers to act to resolve problems.
It will also be necessary to develop clear guidelines for collecting evidence of cyberbullying by staff and students, and clarity of the limitations on the ability of staff to collect such information by accessing online accounts or mobile phones.
The development of effective systems for responding is equally important. The use of young people as mentors or advisers who can be approached by young people experiencing difficulties is one approach that may be particularly effective. This may be preferable to approaching parents, teachers or other agencies where the consequences of disclosing problems may be perceived by the child to have negative implications for their status, social relationships and access to technologies.
Mentors can advise young people on the action they should take and help them to make a report to teachers if appropriate. They can also provide support to victims during this process, but they may require some training. This approach has been successfully implemented in a number of secondary schools to deal with bullying, and such approaches can be expanded to include cyberbullying.
This article has outlined some actions that schools and related services can take to develop effective strategies to prevent and respond to cyberbullying. Of central importance is the need for those responsible for taking such actions to have a full understanding of how the involved technologies work and are used by young people in this way. The heavy workloads and responsibilities of teachers and other education professionals make it a challenge to educate them them effectively about e-safety and cyberbullying, but there are a variety of resources that can be used in this process.
The need to provide effective training for education professionals about e-safety in general, and cyberbullying in particular, is an important aspect of CPD. The development of courses such as the UCLan Certificate (see box above) can be taken as part of this educational process, and inform strategies for preventing and responding to this issue in schools.
- O’Connell, R (2002) Young People’s Use of Chat Rooms: Implications for Policy Strategies and Programs of Education. Preston: CRU/UCLAN.
- Smith, PK, J Mahdavi, et al (2006) An Investigation into Cyberbullying, Its Forms, Awareness and Impact, and the Relationship between Age and Gender in Cyberbullying. Anti-Bullying Alliance.
Dr Jo Bryce is director of research at the Cyberspace Research Unit, University of Central Lancashire, Preston