They may not call it cyberbullying. Students may say they got "dissed" on Facebook or that someone flooded their phone with mean texts. Even little kids have been known to hack into Club Penguin to sabotage each other's games.
While most of these incidents occur at home, the problems spill over to the classroom, making cyberbullying an issue teachers can't ignore.
The answer isn't forbidding technology, say experts, so much as teaching kids right from wrong. As a teacher, you can be a powerful force in promoting a climate of respect. Educate yourself and be on the lookout for signs that cyberbullying is taking place, because you may be the trusted adult a student turns to for help.
How to Recognize It
A lot of innocent teasing happens on Facebook and via text message. So when does a good joke go bad? When someone "repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person," say Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
In their research, the two academics found that approximately 20 percent of students admitted to having cyberbullied. However, many more students reported incidents that fall under its definition. Posting mean or hurtful comments and spreading rumors online was the most common complaint in their random survey of 4,400 students ages 10 to 18 in February 2010.
Not surprisingly, it is most prevalent among middle schoolers, and adolescent girls are more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than boys — 25.8 percent versus 16 percent. Girls are more likely to spread rumors, while boys are more likely to post hurtful pictures or videos.
"Cyberbullying is tailor-made for the relational aggression and rumors that girls typically engage in," says Patchin, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-author with Hinduja of Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying.
While research shows that cyberbullying makes both boys and girls feel angry, sad, and embarrassed, girls are more likely to react with frustration — "Why doesn't anyone like me?" — while boys are more often scared, perhaps of back alley retribution. And as we all know from recent headlines, in the most extreme cases, cyberbullying can trigger violence or suicide.
It's also different from traditional bullying in challenging ways. The bully can remain anonymous and unaware of the pain inflicted on the target. Middle school kids who are just learning to navigate the social scene may not realize how hurtful online comments can be.
"It emboldens some kids to bully who wouldn't otherwise, because they can hide behind a computer screen," says Patchin. Most disturbing is the lasting impact of cyberbullying. Once something goes viral, the harassment is continuous because it is shared, repeated, and nearly impossible to erase.
Schools Stepping Up
School is the center of kids' lives. Online harassment may take place on nights and at home, but the fallout is often seen at school and can interfere with the educational environment. In the worst case, students are so worried about cyberbullying that they can't focus on their studies or are afraid to come to school. It has become a school climate and safety issue.
"Monday is the new Friday," says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Oregon. "It used to be that hurtful interactions built up over the week and would blow up on Friday. Now when kids go back to school on Monday, they are upset because of what happened online over the weekend. There's no longer time to calm down."
There is a flurry of activity in states to make tougher cyberbullying laws, but, "It's not something you can legislate or arrest your way out of," cautions Stephen Balkam, chief executive officer of the Family Online Safety Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's always going to be a combination of tools, rules, and schools. The emphasis needs to be on creating a culture of responsibility online. Kids need to think about the content they create and post."
Schools are struggling to create policies that deal with cyberbullying and the use of cell phones at schools. Experts say banning technology is not the answer, but rather teaching kids to be good digital citizens. When schools adopt codes of conduct, they should apply to activity in or out of school and set the consequences up front. The notion that home and school are two separate spaces no longer exists in the minds of digital kids.
If schools are using technology to deliver education and instruction, they have a responsibility to educate students so they use it correctly, says Hinduja. "Schools believe the Internet and computers are part of kids' lives when honestly, it is their life," he says.
"Teachers should not limit the discussion to computer class or Internet safety day.... You should bring it up in any capacity, in any instance, in any classroom, whether algebra or social studies or the hard sciences."
First Step: Take It Seriously
The first step is to take it seriously, says Michelle Boykins, director of communications and marketing for the National Crime Prevention Council. "It's not just kids being kids. We have to make sure cyberbullying is not a rite of passage. If we don't change the culture then we are helping young people be victimized."
Go online, get familiar with the social networking sites, slang, and terms, says Vicki Davis, a teacher and IT director at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Georgia. "This is a world where they are and we aren't," she says. It's important to emphasize a positive environment and explain what won't be tolerated.
You have an ally in the school counselor, suggests Rosemary Kelly, director of guidance and counseling at Round Rock Independent District Schools in Texas. Counselors have experience teaching kids what it means to be kind, responsible, and respectful, and that translates to their behavior online. They may need to hear the message that if you aren't going to say it to someone's face, don't do it online, adds Linda Criddle, president of LookBothWays, a nonprofit that provides information on Internet safety.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is give kids ways to avoid victimization. Remind them to "never put anything sensitive into an electronic format and send it to someone," says Willard. "The more embarrassing or damaging the material you send electronically, the more likely it will become public."
Finally, let kids know you care and want to help. If there is a problem, you will advocate for them, not just punish them and take away technology. Experts suggest having an anonymous way to report, such as a drop box, hotline, or e-mail, and tell students that reporting a cyberbullying incident isn't squealing. "It's a misperception that wimps tattle," says Criddle. "Actually, kids who come forward and tell are kids who said, ‘I can't solve the problem myself but I deserve better.' "
Recognizing the Signs
Keep your finger on the emotional state of students. Does a student seem depressed? Withdrawn? Are his grades suddenly dropping? Hang out in the hallways and lunchroom to look for changes in relationships, such as a student cast out from her usual lunch table. With younger kids, it may be that they have a stomachache or want to stay home.
In middle school, teachers may witness a spat erupting in the back of class. Once you ask the students what happened, you may learn that the aggression started the night before online.
Know how to intervene when kids make social mistakes, says Kimberly Mazauskas, bullying prevention coordinator for the School District of Palm Beach County (FL). Listen to them and validate their feelings. Then, let the student know what's not right and guide to another alternative.
Ask Students to Report It
Bullying stops when the bystanders speak up. Encourage bystanders to refuse to pass along cyberbullying messages. Or they could add to a wall post "This is not cool" when they see something inappropriate, says Davis.
Lori Devon Shapiro, special project assistant with the bullying violence prevention program in the School District of Philadelphia, worries that schools are not being proactive enough. "The one you miss could be fatal; that's the scariest part," she says. "If you continue to be reactive, you're going to end up reacting to a situation that nobody wants to see themselves in."
Responding to an Incident
If you find out about cyberbullying incidents, pay close attention right after it happens. "That's the only time to really get to the truth," says Davis. Later, everyone may get on the same page and the target pressured to change the story.
Encourage the target of cyberbullying not to erase the evidence by immediately deleting the hurtful message from her wall or phone. Tell the student to take a screen shot to save it, and then share the information with an adult.
Break the myth that the bully is the cool one and it's the victim's fault, says Criddle. Ask students why they were bullied and you'll hear them say they are too fat or too tall. Rather, it's the bully who is hurting and wants to lash out and be mean, says Criddle.
Finding the Right Response
Although there should be consequences for cyberbullying, many experts say it should not be all about punishment. Those who bully need to understand the impact of their actions, and they can often benefit from counseling.
Listen to the students and let the target be part of the solution, suggests Willard. Often, restorative justice techniques — where students talk with each other to understand the impact of the incident — are effective.
Separate the behavior from the student, says Shapiro. "We try to take the criminalization out of it," she says. "It's a matter of teaching right from wrong and teaching them proper behavior, rather than branding them a criminal forever."
Many states are attempting to pass laws that dictate punishment for cyberbullying, but Balkam urges caution. "State legislatures have to be careful not to criminalize what is a form of playground misbehavior," he says. "Do we really want our kids to do time for stuff we did as kids but we put on notes and passed around the classroom?"
Getting Parents Involved
Schools are an important place to connect with parents and disseminate information about online safety. Invite parents to workshops about cyberbullying and share the school's policy.
"Teachers have to encourage parents to be involved in their kids' online lives," says Hinduja. "They're already involved in cheerleading or football. We have to be similarly passionate about what kids are doing online."
Just as parents wouldn't let their kids run around an amusement park, they shouldn't let kids surf online unsupervised, says Kelly. "I hear parents say, ‘I don't know how to do this on the computer, but my child knows everything.' That's dangerous territory."
Balkam adds, "It's a work of a generation; it will take our kids from now until they are parents and teachers themselves to overcome this divide."