Cyberbullying — the use of technology to intentionally hurt or harm someone else — has a simple and straightforward definition, but its impact is neither simple nor straightforward.
Students are especially vulnerable to cyberbullying from online slam books — a digital upgrade of the long-feared spiral notebook where students write cruel things about other students — to hurtful postings via instant messaging, chat rooms and social media sites. In fact, 20 percent of students surveyed last year by the Cyberbullying Research Center say they have experienced cyberbullying.
For the perpetrator, cyberbullying can be anonymous. For the victim, there is no respite or refuge. The Internet is everywhere; often as close as a child's own smartphone. (The average 13- to 18-year-old is online an average of 27 hours per week.) And, once posted online, information can live indefinitely.
So, why do students use technology to bully? What are they thinking? Those questions were probed recently by School-Related Professionals who attended the 33rd annual SRP Leadership Conference. Cyberbullying was one of the 25 workshops offered at the conference. Facilitator Sherry Runk guided SRP leaders through ways educators can help teens see the harm their behaviors can cause.
Runk showed images of a dozen smiling tweens and teens — all children who had committed suicide after being cyberbullied. One was a boy just 11 years old. The children, she quickly pointed out, did not commit suicide solely because of cyberbullying.
"Cyberbullying might have been the last thing that pushed them over the edge," said Runk, a safety trainer with the New York State Center for School Safety, which provides training and technical assistance to schools.
Legislation about cyberbullying is currently in flux and varies from state to state. New York's Dignity for All Students Act, which takes effect on July 1, 2012, provides for a school environment free from harassment and discrimination, including bullying. Some New York legislators are pushing to make cyberbullying a felony, which concerns Runk, who said teens often do not have the ability to anticipate the consequences of their actions.
Cyberbullying prevention is everyone's responsibility, Runk says. She pointed out that SRPs are often in tune with students and encouraged the educators to "support how students feel" while helping to "create an emotionally safe climate."
"It's becoming such an intense situation that we need to be more aware of cyberbullying," said Mark Warner, vice president of the SRP unit of the Syracuse Teachers Association. Warner gives workshops on traditional bullying and now plans to incorporate information about cyberbullying into his workshops.