Cyberbullying - some practical advice for teachers

Behaviour and classroom management resources collections

This article has been written by Tom Bennett, the TES adviser on behaviour and a teacher at Raines Foundation, an inner city state school in Tower Hamlets. He regularly supports teachers on TES through our behaviour forum.

Communication technology has moved so fast, has created and then colonised new markets so quickly, that our culture struggles to catch up with the impact it has on our daily interactions. Which is where, amongst other residents, the cyber-bully steps in. DfE data from 2003 suggested that even then, approximately 16 children a year in the UK committed suicide due to cyber-bullying. And over two thirds of teenagers surveyed admitted that they had, at some point, been the victims of internet abuse, such as:

  • Hate messages, where an aggressor leaves a plain threat or insult
  • Flaming; when a discussion on a forum or website turns nasty, quickly
  • Identity theft: setting up a social network page for someone without their consent, then posting false opinions under that alias- usually designed to inflame opinion against them , or to instigate trouble between peers
  • False allegations: claiming, for example, on an anti-racism website, that Person X is a racist, then posting personal details
  • Releasing private information about that person, to encourage further privacy invasion

And so the grimy list continues. The impact of this can’t be stressed enough; I suspect that many people, for whom internet familiarity has come later in life, struggle to see what an impact this can have. That’s because young people increasingly identify themselves socially with their on-line personae; so when an attack is launched at them on-line, it’s experienced as a direct attack on their identity, their relationship with their peers, and their reputation. After all, cyber-bullying doesn’t just affect the intended victim; it also has an impact on the friends or peers of the victim who witness the attack. Just like a conventional assault.

What can schools do to help combat this?

1. Take it seriously. Cyber-bullying can be a living Hell for the children who experience it, so don’t pretend that it’s just a few nasty words in the playground. Comments can stay on-line for a long time; children often accept rumour and allegations as gospel, so lies become truths and damn the victim, especially when they are hurtful and personal.

2. Have a school policy. This has been a requirement in all UK schools since the 2006 Educations and Inspections Act, although not every school has one yet. Of course, a policy is worthless if it isn’t enacted, but it’s a start; it shows that the problem has at least been thought about. And of course, it lends itself to public scrutiny and discussion, particularly when it isn’t sufficiently versatile or realistic.

3. Netiquette. Every school should be teaching their children about what is acceptable practise in cyber-communications and what isn’t. Teachers mustn’t be afraid of laying down the law with regards to this: children will take their behavioural cues from somewhere, and it’s best if it’s from a responsible adult and not the loudest mouth in the chatroom. This can take place in IT lessons, assemblies, PAL lessons, RS, Citizenship- anywhere, in fact that issues of responsibility are discussed. For example:

  • Never post something in a public area that you wouldn’t be happy to share with the whole world
  • Never give out personal information about yourself on an open forum: address, phone number, where you’ll be, when you’re alone…
  • Remember who your real friends are: kids’ self-esteem is so deeply wrapped up with their peers, that they can race each other for friends added in the popularity contest of adolescence. But block-adding means that people you aren’t close to can see your thoughts and feelings…and can get in touch with you.
  • Sort out your security settings: every social network site has settings that can be modified to allow varying levels of access to varying circles of friendship. In my opinion, some sites have a long way to go in order to make this sufficiently simple- naming no names, but in my Book, some sites need to Face up to their responsibilities towards children and make the settings easier to access and amend.
  • Don’t respond to vicious attacks; save them as evidence.

4. Teaching children how to deal with Cyber-Bullying. This means encouraging them to report it whenever it happens. The irony is that cyber-bullying leaves a forensic trail you can see from space: Service Providers, the Police, and sometimes even in-school IT technicians can track down a post to practically the nearest metre, and usually to a specific terminal. Mobiles too. The bullies can almost always be caught- IF they are investigated. This means telling pupils that they can respond to this, and they don’t need to be victims. And it also means having a network of teachers in the school that vulnerable children feel they can trust with the information; after all, many victims internalise their anguish, often blaming themselves. And the Child Protection Officer (CPO- every school should have one) needs to be one of the first ports of call after it’s been reported.

5. Get the parents involved. If I had a child that was being insulted, harassed and bullied by some mysterious cowards, I’d imagine I’d like to know about it. Schools mustn’t shy away from this- and they mustn’t pretend it’s not serious. For some pupils, it’s a matter of life and death.

Bullying has always been with us; in fact, until the seventies, it was accepted by many in the UK as an inevitable part of growing up, as if Lord of the Flies was the typical youth dynamic. Well, it may be inevitable- maybe even a part of human nature- but that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything about it. The new technologies present this old problem in novel and complex ways: the victim can often become part of a network of avenging bullies, retaliating against the original attacker, quickly involving others. Blame can often be difficult to assess- who started it? Who’s the real victim? And of course, the anonymity of the internet and SIM cards can mean that conventional barriers to antisocial behaviour- customs, fear of retaliation- are removed, and aggression is easier to express. But that anonymity is a shade; an illusion, IF the victim gets the right support to track down the harasser, and IF the victim’s guardians take the event as seriously as the victim does.

The best thing teachers and schools can do is to model good methods of communication between themselves and their pupils, and being role models for how to speak maturely, and how to resolve conflict, and disagreement. If we can train children how to express themselves with wisdom and kindness, or at least tolerance and manners, then we will have helped them in more ways than one.

Deleting cyberbullies from cyberspace

Playground cruelty can be magnified on the net. The odd thing is that many of the comments made would never have seen the light of day had they not been facilitated by the secret, undercover world of the internet. In essence, Facebook and other platforms have made it easier for people to be bullied, victimised, subject to harassment and intimidation. And let’s face it, at least it sometimes takes courage to say those things in public; but in your bedroom, hiding behind someone else’s name, it becomes as easy as logging on.
Scotland Yard now has a dedicated unit for dealing with this problem, and all that a police officer has to do is to contact this unit, who in turn contact Facebook- if they see any posts that break their terms and conditions, they can perform the ultimate digital disinfection: deleting the account. The reason that this is important is that many teachers and SLT think that this is a complicated, technical process; it’s not. It’s as simple as reporting anything else. And believe me, it’s worth not ignoring this kind of bullying- to the victims, it’s as real, and perhaps often more personal, more private, than traditional bullying over pocket money, because it invades their bedrooms. Worse, it involves their on-line personae. We have a generation of children who increasingly identify their self-image with their on-line presence; their avatars, their usernames, the groups they join, the content they generate. For someone to have that element of their identity attacked is to feel a very peculiar and omnipresent form of being haunted. The on-line world has no physical form; it surrounds us conceptually. How do you run from that?

And it’s not just teenagers: in 2009, research by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teacher Support Network suggested 15% of teachers had experienced cyberbullying, often from parents. 

Equally, the sensation of having one’s account removed is, for some teenagers, akin to having an elbow removed (or a leg?). In some ways, it’s the perfect sanction; for some, devastating, yet involving no actual physical punishment, merely the to-be-expected outcome of breaking a contract, buried deep within the bits of Facebook nobody ever reads (usually right next to the bit about them owning everything you upload to Facebook, and your rights to privacy, which can be summarised in a haiku). You can tell that it’s traumatic, because there are Facebook groups already called things like ‘They deleeted mi payge for no reeson Facebuk ar crimnals,’ and other unlovely contortions of grammar and syntax.

Here are some of the transgressions for which Facebook can delete your profile.

Section 3 of their terms of use say:

  1. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
  2. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

Section 4:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not create more than one personal profile.

So if you have to deal with anything along these lines, don’t shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well it’s the Internet, innit?’ Give your friendly copper a call, and watch some instant justice being meted out, Tron-style. Satisfaction guaranteed.

Good luck.

More useful links*

Home to the Stop!

Cyberbullying website: packed with useful information and strategies
Forum discussion on cyberbullying

A TES forum link to a useful presentation that can be used to raise discussion at school about cyberbulling
Safe Kids

The Sake Kids website, aimed at educating children, with useful sections for parents too

Microsoft Cyber Safety
Microsoft’s own advice page for home users to combat online malice
Facebook terms & conditions

The rules that Facebook expects all its users to abide by: if you can show that anyone has been contravening any of these principles, you can have the account closed.
The Met Police: Cyberbullying

Essential viewing: the Met police’s site devoted to cyberbullying, your response to it, and how to use the law against the bullies.

*TES Resources is not responsible for the content of other websites