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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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September082007

Dealing with Cyberbullies: No Easy Answers

If you read my previous blog post, you know I’ve spent the last couple of weeks grappling with the issue of cyberbullying and how to respond when it occurs. I immediately reached out to educators and bullying experts to get their advice on how to respond. I’d hoped for a consensus. What was I thinking?

To recap: Wired Magazine recently published an article in which they offered a list they called “The Six Lamest Social Networks” on the Internet. On that list was Stop Cyberbullying, the community I set up for educators to share best practices on combatting online bullying. What they wrote wasn’t exactly flattering, and frankly, was construed by many of my colleagues as a form of bullying in its own right.

This left me in a bit of a quandary: how should I respond? Do I go public with the incident and risk the situation getting worse, or do I talk to them via back channels? Or do I do nothing and hope no one notices? There didn’t seem to be a right answer in my mind, so I asked colleagues on the WWWEDU email list for their advice. The result was a number of thoughtful, though diverging opinions. When taken in the aggregate, they demonstrate the broad range of perspectives on how to deal with cyberbullying, and the fact that there isn’t a consensus on how to respond to bullying incidents.

Online safety advocate Nancy Willard, who has written extensively on cyberbullying, noted the fundamental challenge in engaging in a dialogue with cyberbullies, simply because most of them don’t wish to have a dialogue in the first place. “I recommend that the first two steps are to either calmly tell the bullies to stop or to simply ignore/block the communications,” she wrote. “The problem with trying to engage in teachable moments with some folks is that they are simply not ‘teachable.’”

Art Wolinsky of WiredSafety expressed concern about doing anything that might provoke a verbal arms race:

The article is sad and irresponsible, but taking it to the street will just escalate the situation. We are dealing here with an inadvertent cyberbully. I would offer the same advice I would offer an individual in this case. Don’t respond publicly. Take it off line. Talk to the person face to face and make them understand the damage they are doing. I would try to contact Wired directly and talk to them about it and ask them if they have any ideas on how they can help undo the damage they have done.
Elementary school educators Mark Ahlness suggested turning the other cheek:
Gotta let it go. I’m more in line with Art than anybody else responding here so far. You’re not going to change any minds by responding publicly in that forum. A short note to the editor/author is about all you can do. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on it. Move on, open up the ning site again in a week or two when the much ado is about nothing because they’re on to something else, and spend your time on things you CAN change. You have a lot of influence. I wouldn’t waste it on this battle.

This perspective provoked a response from Bob Hirshon, who felt a public response was appropriate, if it struck the right tone.

I think this is a blessing in disguise. Most readers of Wired, I believe, are liberal and enlightened. I think this could easily lead to, at least, a positive discussion of the problem of cyberbullying with them and their readers and, at best, a feature article on cyberbullying. I see this as a huge opportunity to reach a large audience. You may eventually want to send the article’s author a thank you note…. …First off, definitely write a guilt-inducing letter to the editor. They’re good about printing those. If you can strike the right tone (sarcastic, with a little humor, but some serious-as-a-heart-attack statistics on the effects of bullying) you will win points…. Again I think the key is to get the tone right, and not sound too scolding or whiney about it. That would be a real red flag to them, and just bring on more vandalism.

Art Wolinsky then chimed in again:

Kids (and magazines) do and say stupid and/or cruel things Sometime they are done maliciously and other times they are done simply because they are kids being kids. If we simply react to the outcome of the action rather than investigate the cause and act appropriately, we can do damage or escalate the problem. I think a combination of the advice given so far is in order. I still stand by my suggestion to take it off line first. If that avenue reveals that we are dealing with and intentional bullying incident then further steps would be in order. Whatever action you take, rest assured that you have the support of this community member and I suspect the entire community.

Bill Belsey of Bullying.org simply expressed disappointment:

When I first used the term cyberbullying back in 2000 some people laughed at me, but with current research in Canada, the U.S. and the U.k. showing that cyberbullying is affecting as many as one out of three young people, and with cyberbullying being linked to school shootings and suicides, labeling collaborative efforts to prevent cyberbullying by raising awareness through education as ‘Lame’ speaks volumes as to how much work is yet to be done.

Bonnie Bracey felt the incident was a symptom of a greater problem - a general disrespect for educators who embrace technology:
To be a teacher or a technology advocate is to walk a road that has many detractors. In Washington at events, if you say you are a teacher, sometimes people turn their backs and walk away. It is that we are misrepresented. Sometimes it is the fault? of history, however it was that people were treated or felt to be treated in school. You never know what the public has in mind…. I think an off line discussion is in order. This is a tough time to be a teacher or a technologist and they should know that, but it is much more sensational to affix blame…. So we can’t get upset. We have to teach, share, and use data to prove our points…. It takes a very long, very long time to establish credibility and our credibility has been savaged.
Carla Beard warned against fighting fire with fire:
If you “call them out,” you live up to the educator stereotype and put yourself on the same level as the vandals. What is needed - and I’m not quite sure how to do it - is to point out how much you appreciate Wired’s attempt at humor, comment on the seriousness of the problem in general terms, and find a way to laugh at those who didn’t get it, couching the consequences in the most humorous manner possible, perhaps by publishing some of the more moronic offerings, presenting the material in such a way that the point becomes obvious: it’s not funny.

In contrast, Taran Rampersad suggested a more aggressive approach:

I’ve read the responses, and I must reiterate what I have learned in a lifetime of bullies, from elementary school to dealing with drunk Marines. Never back down. Ever. When they swing, swing back. When they hit you, hit them back. When they knock you down, get back up. Never be beaten - maybe wounded, but never beaten.

The Wired article and its effects demonstrate the very same thing that your site is about. It really is. They picked the fight, they KNEW that it would have an effect (don’t tell me that they didn’t - if they don’t know their readership, then they are incompetent.) They KNEW it would put you in this quandary, or they are incompetent. In my eyes, there can be no middle path on this….

If there is a signal to be sent, send it. If there is no signal, if cyberbullying is only an academic discussion and nothing to be acted upon… do nothing. Say nothing. Or ride the fence and backchannel it and know that it will go nowhere. Or dare to backchannel it with an authoritative tone, slightly reproachful, and (heaven forbid) take a stance… and if that doesn’t work, fight with all that you have. Whatever you do, don’t discuss it to death. Bullies thrive on that sort of thing.

I do know that if you stand up against it, I’ll be at your shoulder. If you don’t, well - it will just pass by, and various academics can write about it in studies as they have done before. One works against bullies. The other doesn’t. Take your pick.

Gloria Bobbie even offered a sample letter of her own:

I’m sorry that you find this issue “lame”, but it is a very real and serious issue that has caused the deaths of a number of young people. I hope that none of your readers ever has to deal with a child being bullied in this way because it is at least an attack on the self esteem of the child and it is emotionally devastating. At worst it can lead to the death of a child through suicide or murder. The issue is so serious that not only have we, but others such as Unicel, the province of Ontario, counseling centers such as that at UKansas and CBS to name just a few found it important enough to address. I would hope that a respected organization such as yourself would join us in recognizing the dangers of cyberbullying and join those who wish to inform and/or defeat this practice. I invite you to do so. Thank you for bringing attention to this egregious act.”

So here I was with a lot of feedback from these educators and others, all of whom I respect very much. Perhaps it was somewhat na├»ve of me to have assumed that I might see some sort of consensus emerge, but in a way, it makes sense. Since cyberbullying in itself isn’t necessarily cookie cutter, it’s hard to apply a cookie cutter response to it. There are times when it’s best to be diplomatic and use back channels to resolve the situation. In other cases, an aggressive disciplinary approach makes sense.

The best advice I got came from Ferdi Serim, who wrote a very short email with a basic message, “Speak the truth,” he said. Be open about it, but don’t escalate. Fight fire with facts. And with that, I opened up my laptop and wrote the letter I posted earlier this week.

I still haven’t heard back from the author of the article or anyone else at Wired. I hope they do, though, as I and many other people will be interested to see what they have to say. -andy

Filed under : Safety

Responses

This is the first I have heard of “cyberbullying”. I am a new teacher, but in my 40’s…Some of the comments, support show that “liberals”(and careful on how you define this, because in this country most people are much more “liberal/enlightened” than so called liberals think-I am more conservative on some issues due to my past experiences in law enforcement. The so called liberal attitude doesn’t work in real life matters-unless you’ve been a police officer, you have NO IDEA what is like to deal w/many of the tough situations-hence why I am now a teacher. Anyway, bullying occurs by liberals just as much as by so called “conservatives”. The world, not just the USA teaches people to be aggressive to get what you want. If you don’t get it fight for it! (several of the comments above actually say to “fight” for your cause. What do you do if it becomes physical? Life isn’t easy, fair or nice-please go study history if you think I am wrong. People have been bullying each other since day 1…What makes you think it is going to stop-there’s as much violence today in the USA, even w/ all the education, enlightenment that our technology has brought. I’d say that a dose of reality is needed, and that unfortunately, there will always be bullies. My hope is that through education we can teach respect for different opinions(not just tolerance). Good luck, but unfortunately bullies are here to stay-thus the need for prisons.

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