Digital Citizenship | Feature

Confronting Cyberbullying

Experts say that schools need to stop worrying about external internet predators and take on the threat within: cyberbullying

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as schools first started getting widespread access to the internet, many administrators saw the potential in this new technology, but also huge risks and liabilities. While billions were being spent on hardware and connectivity, the mainstream media was fueling parental fears with stories of online predators waiting at every exit of the new information superhighway. The response from many schools was initially to teach internet safety in terms of protection from the two P's: predators and pornography. With funding coming from the Department of Justice, teacher training was conducted by law enforcement personnel and student assemblies often included uniformed police officers. At the same time, numerous well-meaning nonprofits appeared, seeking to help educators communicate with parents and students, but still through a lens of fear and protection.

Many experts now believe this was very much the wrong approach. "We missed the boat by concentrating on internet predators," says Patti Agatston, a nationally recognized counselor and cofounder of Larry Magid, codirector of, concurs that "predation is statistically so unlikely that it's not where we should be putting our resources."

The focus today, Agatston and Magid agree, should be on empowering kids to be good digital citizens. Groups such as Common Sense Media have in recent years helped to reframe their discussion in terms of the skills students need to live successful, technology-rich 21st century lives. Acquiring these proficiencies requires a positive and more holistic approach: how to protect personal information, interact in social forums, deal with cyberbullying, and critically judge online information are all among these vital skills. By focusing on how schools do want kids to behave online rather than on how we don't want them to behave, "We let them assume responsibility for their own learning and their own online experience," says Linda Burch, Common Sense Media's chief education and strategy officer.

Elevating the Issue
Common Sense Media, along with groups such as Media Awareness Network, BrainPop,, and Web Wise Kids, all offer a breadth of resources to address these issues. While these organizations strongly encourage administrators to institute the full range of digital literacy curricula, the combination of students with smartphones, the expanded usage of social networking sites, and high-profile media coverage of recent cyberbullying tragedies has elevated the issue of cyberbullying to the top of many administrators' worry lists.

"Bullying and cyberbullying have a lot in common, but in many ways, cyberbullying is even more pernicious," says Anne Schreiber, vice president of education content at Common Sense Media. Schreiber points out that the cyberbully doesn't see his or her victim, which makes it easier to have less empathy than in a face-to-face interaction. What's more, anything written in a text or online chat or on a social networking site can be forwarded to any number of people with just a few clicks, escalating the problem beyond, say, a corner of the school cafeteria.

Schreiber recounts a recent cyberbullying incident that began with a series of hostile text messages at school in the morning. By the afternoon, a fight had broken out between friends of the bully and friends of the victim--the harsh words were forwarded over and over until the whole school was involved. "Because the bullying spread so quickly through viral texting, there was no time for the individuals to cool off and think about how to behave rationally or ethically," Schreiber notes.

Administrators can't shrug off issues of cyberbullying by arguing that the bulk of the issues happen with kids outside of school or that they simply don't have time in the school day. Agatston, who is the coauthor of Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, says that although she appreciates that school leaders are pressed for time to confront these issues, "if they can see the link between academic achievement and bullying, they'll see that it's well worth the time." Agatston's research suggests that addressing cyberbullying in school improves attendance as well as students' focus on their schoolwork.

What's needed, ConnectSafely's Magid contends, "is a sustained campaign where bullying is as 'out' as racism or smoking." To accomplish this, experts suggest a unified and comprehensive approach, which requires that schools integrate cyberbullying education into their curriculum and adequately provide for teacher training.

Agatston says that schools must cast a broad net in terms of who they involve in the discussion of safe online usage. "Within schools we need to move from the idea of anti-bullying being the responsibility of the school counselor to being the responsibility of the whole school community, which includes parents," she says.

Staff Training Is Key
If school leaders are going to engage more members of the school community, recent data suggests that much work still needs to be done with classroom teachers. According to a 2010 survey from the National Cyber Security Alliance, just 50 percent of teachers who participated in the study felt prepared to discuss cyberbullying. Over three quarters of teachers surveyed spent less than six hours on any type of professional development education related to cyberethics, cybersafety, and cybersecurity within the last 12 months.

Many states around the country, including Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island, as well as districts such as Kentucky's Pike County Schools, have demonstrated that programs that educate their schools and, in some cases, their entire communities about the responsible use of technology can be effective. In Pike County, for example, the district was struggling in 2007 with extensive violations of its Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). After it implemented on-site professional development to support digital citizenship, the impact has been substantial. Since 2009, only two AUP violations have been recorded.

Burch says she's optimistic about schools' abilities to substantially curb issues of cyberbullying, pointing out that more than 12,000 schools have already registered to use Common Sense Media's curriculum. Burch also sees a range of positive signs that both government and media companies are also focusing on the issue. In March, the White House launched to offer resources for students, parents, and educators on how to detect, intervene in, follow up on, and prevent bullying, including cyberbullying. The site, which was launched in concert with a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, serves to shine a national spotlight on the issue.

On the media side, MTV recently launched its "A Thin Line" online campaign, which offers a brief user quiz followed by short, engaging videos that each highlight the message that there's "a thin line" between what may begin as a harmless joke and something that could end up having a serious impact on the person playing the joke or another human being. Nickelodeon recently announced that it will be creating a series of public service announcements around the issue of internet safety and will embed themes of healthy technology usage into such popular shows as iCarly. Cable in the Classroom, the public service arm of the cable industry, has numerous educational resources on digital citizenship, including cyberbullying.

Facebook also announced that it would be making changes to how users report inappropriate activity. A new feature, dubbed "social reporting," will give users new options for reporting offensive photos or Wall posts. For example, kids can now notify a trusted source, such as a parent or teacher, of foul play. In addition, when users click "Report" on a photo, a pop-up window will appear asking if the photo is about the user. If it is, the user can select "I don't like this photo" or "This photo is harassing or bullying me."

Best Practices
Back at school, many districts are in need of expanding or revising their policies and procedures around dealing with these important 21st century issues. The best digital citizenship programs have a number of features in common, which administrators can consider as best practices. Agatston offers the following guidelines:

  • Assess cyberbullying: Effective bullying prevention programs begin with an assessment of the problem in your school or district.
  • Develop clear policies: Policies should address both on-campus and off-campus acts that have or could have a substantial disruption on student learning or safety.
  • Provide staff training: Just as staff training is needed to adequately address bullying behavior and encourage positive bystander behavior (and in a broader sense, "citizenship"), training on preventing and responding to cyberbullying, as well as the broader topic of encouraging positive digital citizenship, is a necessary part of any digital citizenship program.
  • Spend class time on the topic of cyberbullying and positive digital citizenship: Classroom discussions should be part of the regularly held discussions on bullying and cover such topics as defining cyberbullying; school policies and rules regarding cyberbullying; how to report cyberbullying behavior; how to best respond to cyberbullying behavior; and the bystander role as it applies to cyberbullying.
  • Teach students online "netiquette," safe use of social media, and how to monitor their online reputation: These vital social skills also have an impact on job preparedness, as social technology is increasingly being incorporated into most career paths. Lessons can be infused throughout the curriculum where appropriate. Discussions can take place when using technology in the classroom as well as when addressing career and college guidance.
  • Train and utilize student mentors: Effective prevention programming includes incorporating youth leadership, particularly to address school climate issues. Making use of student leadership sends a strong message to other youth and also recognizes that the peer group often has more legitimacy than the teacher in addressing social issues.
  • Form parent/community/school partnerships: Everyone has a role to play in encouraging positive digital citizenship. Schools need to partner with parents and community organizations in making sure that there is a consistent message about the responsible and ethical use of technology.

Ultimately, school districts should work to foster a school environment where young people are free to express themselves and their identity online, but do it in a safe, thoughtful, and respectful manner. Burch says this comes by empowering students to see that "we all have roles and responsibility to ourselves, to our friends and family, and to the community we belong to, whether that's a school or an organization or an online community." Burch believes that kids respond well when leaders cast an affirming and inclusive frame around the issue of digital citizenship. "This is their world," she says. "They want to make it a positive one."