Cyberbullying, like traditional bullying, is a way that a child with social power can abuse a less powerful child (Olweus, 2013). It is bullying that takes place over digital devices and involves sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content. Cyberbullying may involve sharing personal or private information that causes embarrassment or humiliation (StopBullying. gov, 2020). Hinduja and Patchin (2014) define it as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text.” In contrast, Englander (2013) argues that all electronic mean behavior is by its nature repetitive as comments are forwarded and posted. But there are also some aspects of cyberbullying that are unique to the electronic world.
Bullying in the electronic world is, by its very nature, indirect. Without the clues of facial expression, body language, or tone of voice, the child doing the bullying can justify and make light of the abuse they are perpetrating. Disinhibited from norms against cruelty, the child who is doing the bullying continues. This allows the child who does the bullying to pretend that their behavior is not actually painful to the person being bullied, and they continue to escalate the bullying. Furthermore, the act of repeatedly writing one’s negative feelings and making increasingly contemptuous comments toward someone can escalate those feelings, deepening the damage for both players in the drama.
The COVID-19 pandemic that began in the spring of 2020 created a need for even more online use for children. Preschoolers were posting to social media, and elementary school students were distance learning from home via tablets and computers. Everyone was connecting digitally.
But how does this relate to cyberbullying? Younger children who have more supervised access to the internet report less cyberbullying (Monks, Robinson, & Worlidge, 2012). However, we also know that internet access is increasing at younger ages, and that nearly 20 percent of children in grades three through five report being cyberbullied (Depaolis & Williford, 2015; Luxenberg, Limber, & Olweus, 2019).
The trend of younger children having increased access to the internet with less supervision will likely continue. Keep in mind that cyberbullying experiences almost always begin with precipitating events in the classroom (Juvonen & Gross, 2008; Monks, Mahdavi, & Rix, 2016) and can be a strong predictor of a child being cyberbullied (Chen, Ho, & Lwin, 2016; Guo, 2016; Kowalski, Limber, & McCord, 2019). The Olweus report on bullying in U.S. schools (Luxenberg, Limber, & Olweus, 2019), compiled from 245,000 student questionnaires, found that although 16 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls in grades three through five reported that they had been cyberbullied, only 1 percent of these children reported that they were cyberbullied as a stand-alone, with no additional bullying preceding it in school. With this in mind, educators may need to increase efforts in their classrooms to prevent bullying and protect against possible cyberbullying.
Are Children Engaged in Cyberbullying?
No matter how proactively you teach cyber safety, cyberbullying can emerge in the most surprising ways. Watch for clues that a student may be being cyberbullied. Does the student seem upset as they open or shut down their electronic device? Do they appear upset or depressed after using their device? Or perhaps the student seems to be avoiding using their device altogether (Hinduja & Patchin, 2014).
Look for clues that a student may be cyberbullying in school. Does a student quickly shield their screen as you walk by? Do they immediately close the application? Is there a small group gathered around a tablet, laughing harder than usual?
Because it can often lead to cyberbullying, watch for signs of traditional bullying or social cruelty. Does one student appear to be isolated on the playground, in the lunchroom, or even in the classroom? Do you hear “funny” but cruel comments followed by laughter? Are those comments frequently directed at the same child?
If there are indicators that cyberbullying may be taking place, it’s time to observe more closely. For example, sit in as a group gathers, laughing, around a tablet. The signs may be perfectly innocent, or they may point to a more serious situation.
How Can We Prevent Cyberbullying?
Whether your students engage in cyberbullying on school-owned devices or on devices at home, it will permeate the culture of the classroom and do damage to the positive classroom climate that you have worked so hard to create. There are many proactive strategies that can be used to prevent cyberbullying in and out of the classroom:
- Positive classroom culture
- Clear rules for respectful behavior in person and on cyber platforms
- Social skills training that links the classroom and cyber platforms
Equally important is that students know who to report to if cyberbullying occurs and that educators know how to respond to such reports.
Early childhood is the ideal time to foster anti-bullying behavior in children. Young children are more likely than older children to seek guidance from parents and teachers, and if children learn to engage in casual cruelty as small children, habits will develop that can be hard to turn around (Yerger & Gehret, 2011). By the same logic, the best time to teach positive digital behaviors is when children first have access to digital devices (Sprung, Froschl, & Gropper, 2020).
Teaching Developmentally Appropriate Skills for Internet Safety
Specific Skill Instruction
Respond to simple, clear instructions and rules
How to share the blue crayon, how to share the computer screen with your partner
Competitive, sometimes poor sports
How to treat each other respectfully, class rules to reinforce this
Sensitive to their own and each other’s feelings, strong sense of right and wrong
How might your classmate feel if not included in a game, if you use mean words
Like to socialize and work in groups of four
The importance of, and how to work in, frequently changing groups
The age of self-definition, cliques can be a problem
It’s OK to have good friends but it’s important to be friendly to and work with every classmate
Friendly, strong sense of right and wrong, love to work together
Classroom rules apply in a virtual school environment
Tools for Children to Use to Cope With Cyberbullying
Best practice is to do everything we can to prevent bullying and cyberbullying. However, in all likelihood, it will happen at least occasionally and thus we need to provide children tools to cope in the moment.
Start by having a discussion with the class to talk about what cyberbullying is, how to guard against it, and how to cope with it if it happens. It’s important to be sure your students know that you will support them.
Teach skills that will prepare children for online challenges they may come across. For example:
- Before making mean comments, step back and think about how the person receiving the comments might feel.
- Talk with a person rather than texting when there is a serious disagreement.
- Before posting a picture of someone or leaving a comment online, ask that person first if it’s OK to do so.
- Keep passwords private and share them only with your parents.
Each child should choose an adult in school (a “safety person”) who they will feel comfortable reporting to about a cyberbullying incident. Be sure to talk through how they would contact that adult and what they would say, and let the chosen adult know that one of your students would like them to be their safety person.
Should a child encounter cyberbullying, encourage them to take a screenshot of the abusive message or picture to share with their safety person. In addition, make sure that the children know that it’s best not to respond in kind to cyberbullying and that the most effective approach is not to respond at all (Notar, Padgett, & Roden, 2013).
Students will often fail to report cyberbullying because they assume adults at school do not care or will not act on it. Taking the steps above will let children know that you do care. You can also let parents know in your back-to-school letters and meetings that you want to know if they hear of any cyberbullying, even if it’s going on outside of the school campus.
There are also technical approaches that can be used to stop or mitigate cyberbullying, including switching passwords, changing telephone numbers, or deleting unread messages received from an unknown address (Slonje, Smith, & Frisén, 2013). In addition, some phones allow you to block incoming phone numbers, and blocking apps are available.
Parents’ Role in Preventing Cyberbullying
Children require teaching and supervision as they learn to engage with digital devices. Our “digital native” children may be comfortable and competent with pointing, swiping, and clicking, but there are many things that they don’t understand about the cyber world. Without the guidance of parents and teachers, children may encounter dangers.
Parents should be aware of what their child is doing online. Keeping digital devices in common family areas can make it easier for parents to keep an eye on their children’s online activity. If their child plays digital games, joining them once in a while can help a parent better understand what their child is doing.
Share the classroom rules for using digital devices with parents to provide a basis for their family rules and expectations. Remind parents to involve their children when creating family rules. These rules can be as general as “Keep your device safe” or as specific as “Only share your password with your parents.” Of course, an important expectation would be, “If something feels unsafe, then discuss it with your parents.”
Parents should observe how their children interact with others online. Make parents aware that older children can provide negative models for younger siblings. As in other areas of life, older children should be taught to be positive family leaders. It’s also not unknown for older children to cyberbully younger siblings. And, of course, parents and teachers should model appropriate internet use. Our job as adults is to be positive role models.
To solve the problem of cyberbullying, educators, parents, and community members can and should work together as a team with common goals of inclusion and kindness, we can lead children along a more positive path
Caltha Crowe is a Center for Responsive Schools author, consulting teacher, and board of directors member. A retired elementary school teacher, she volunteers at her local elementary school and a multilingual and multicultural parents’ cooperative preschool that brings together families and children who are otherwise separated by ethnicity, class, race, and culture. The second edition of her book, How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, will be available in November 2021.