“Walk away.” For decades, kids suffering abuse from school bullies have gotten this advice from grown-ups and have, more often than not, found it to work. But there is, unfortunately, no walking away from today’s “cyberbullies.” They use digital media to verbally swipe at their victims at any place or time they choose. Jonathan Singer, a professor of social work at Temple University in Philadelphia, and the host of the Social Work Podcast, says that many grown-ups and kids alike are puzzled over what to do about cyberbullying.
School social workers are used to looking for bullying out on the schoolyard, he explains. But most cyberbullying, according to Singer, doesn’t take place anywhere near a school. The bullies use Twitter, Facebook, email, or other platforms to send their victims harassing messages, bash them in public online forums, or post embarrassing or degrading things about them to classmates all via virtual devices. The victim can be at home, at the movie theatre, at a friend’s house—it doesn’t matter. As long as the victim has a connected phone or computer at hand, the bully can swipe at them through it.
“The schools, they’re in a dilemma, and school social workers are in a dilemma,” says Singer. “Something that interferes with a child’s capacity to learn is a school issue. But if a child is being harassed outside of school, what responsibility does a school have to address that?”
As many as 53% of young people are targeted by cyberbullies, according to a survey produced by the organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. A few occurrences turn into high-profile tragedies, such as the case of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate repeatedly spied on his encounters with a gay male companion and posted insulting remarks about them on Twitter.
Singer has also seen instances in which one student sends an intimate message or photo to another student with whom he or she is romantically involved, and then another classmate—or even the sender’s sweetie, if the romance has gone sour—takes the message or photo and sends it far and wide. Teachers always discourage students who are younger than college-age from “sexting,” not just for legal reasons—law enforcement considers the behavior child pornography—but for the kids’ personal safety, as well.
Singer agrees: Anything that a young person posts online or in a text message can be used to hurt them. He also implores young people to keep the privacy settings on their Facebook profiles and other social-networking services as high as possible. He acknowledges, however, that no matter what their elders tell them, many college students and some middle- or high-school students will inevitably sext.
"Kids have not changed. They still have the same developmental tasks I had when I was a kid, such as distinguishing sexual feelings from intimacy, making meaningful peer relationships, and establishing independence from parents. But the tools that kids use today to connect and communicate have implications that didn’t exist when I was doing it. The worst that could happen to me was that a peer or teacher would intercept a note at school, or my sister would listen in on my phone conversation.” says Singer.
Even if they do sext, there are measures that they can take that might decrease the risks. Singer points out a new phone app called Snapchat, with which users can send photos or messages and then have them self-delete as soon as the recipient views them. The sender won’t need to fear that the recipient or someone else will check out the file and use it later to embarrass them.
“It allows kids to reclaim some ownership over what gets transmitted, because it disappears,” he says.
Singer also sees a potential anti-bullying benefit in various kinds of software that recognize when a user is about to send any kind of message—sexual or otherwise—and, if the message contains any obscene language, it will pause and ask the user to confirm that he or she wants to send it. Some bullying incidents, he explains, start with a young person simply thinking impulsively and firing off a message without considering whether it might be hurtful. Having the young person take a moment to consider the message can, in some cases, be all it takes for him or her to rethink it and press DELETE instead.
“Kids are impulsive and risk taking,” he says. “Those types of caution messages help to monitor the environment and help discourage kids from doing things impulsively. They remind them that someone is watching them.”
Facebook enables users to report posts and messages that are abusive. Also, a user can “block” another user who is harassing them—a user cannot see or message a user who blocks him or her. Singer considers all of these features helpful, but he cautions that cyberbullies can find ways around them. For instance, a victim may block a classmate who is bullying him or her, only for the bully to use another friend’s name and login credentials to log in and, via the friend’s profile, continue the Facebook harassment.
Kids need to be willing to tell their parents if other kids are cyber-bullying them. And parents need to do their best to keep their kids safe. This may include monitoring their kids’ Internet usage and placing limits on it. This includes staying aware of their kids’ use of smartphones.
“One of the things that is a part of cyberbullying prevention is educating parents that smartphones, specifically, are not seen as phones by kids. They’re used as mobile Internet devices,” he says.
Schools, meanwhile, can’t control what kids do at home. But they can strive during school hours to teach kids not to be bullies or, more fundamentally, not to tolerate bullying. Singer encourages schools to organize programs that promote empathy and respectful communications.
“We need to work on creating school climates where being a bully and abusing someone else are not tolerated, school climates where it’s not something that’s endorsed by the kids,” he says.
Singer encourages social workers, teachers, and parents to all read up on the issue. The Cyberbullying Research Center, he says, maintains a Web site that’s filled with useful information, including regularly updated lists of every state’s laws on cyber bullying, as well as published studies on cyberbullying and guides for leading discussions with kids and adults on cyberbullying.
The site’s two co-directors, Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, have also published two books, both of which Singer recommends highly: Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing Cyber Bullying (Corwin, 2008) and School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyber Bullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time (Corwin, 2012). The U.S. government Web site StopBullying.gov also has helpful cyberbullying-related information, he adds.
Cyber bullying being such a new phenomenon, even the savviest social-work researchers have yet to fully figure out what to make of it and how we can best counter it, Singer points out. Adults at all levels will need to work over the long haul on effective solutions.
“We’re really in the very early stages of understanding what works with cyberbullying,” he says. “This is a hot topic, and everyone is figuring out what to do.”