Monica Lewinsky: Schools must help counter cyberbullying

Reflecting on her own experience with online threats, hate and shaming 20 years ago, Monica Lewinsky urges teachers to tackle cyberbullying

Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky

In 1768, when Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published, there was no telephone, let alone the internet, to facilitate communication and allow for connections when people were not face-to-face. As we all know today, 250 years later, we can communicate immediately via email, text, photo, tweet, post to anyone anywhere in the world, and we can whip out our mobile phones and accomplish this in seconds.

If we could travel back in time and query people of that previous age to imagine what it would be like to have the communication system we now enjoy at our fingertips, my hunch is the response to this idea would be overwhelmingly positive. And while the birth of the internet has indeed inspired extraordinarily positive things, the dark underbelly of humanity has also been amplified.

The internet is still so young, and yet we already have new terms in our lexicon such as "cyberbullying", "digital resilience" and the most recent and shocking of all, "bullycide" (to describe those who have died by suicide as a result of – in part – bullying behaviour). That bullycides often involve young people – sometimes as young as 9 or 10 – is heartbreaking.

The grim statistics on both online and offline bullying – especially among young people – are sobering. Research by Ofcom in 2017 suggests that one-in-eight young people in the UK have been bullied on social media, with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reporting more than 12,000 counselling sessions about online issues in the last year alone. In the UK, the number of youngsters calling Childline, a youth hotline operated by the NSPCC, about cyberbullying-related issues has more than doubled in five years. The troubling acts run the gamut from name-calling and rumourmongering to blackmail and even death threats.

According to a study by the National Centre for Social Research in 2011, more than 16,000 British students, aged 11-15, cited bullying as the main reason they were absent from school, and nearly 78,000 cited it as a reason. I’ve seen sobering statistics and heard similar stories elsewhere, throughout the US, Australia, Europe and India.

But how did we get here?

The gulf between how we behave online versus how we behave offline, when we’re face-to-face, is clearly too broad, vast, and deep. Anonymity and depersonalisation on the internet have contributed to an obvious coarsening of our culture. Professor Nicolaus Mills of Sarah Lawrence College coined the phrase a “culture of humiliation,” which helps define this shift in our society.

Sadly, we have begun to place more and more value, monetary and otherwise, on humiliation and shame, both of which are core experiences of being bullied. We’ve seen this shift in the news and entertainment we consume; as a result, we have a compassion deficit that’s reflected in the vitriol we now see online.

There is also ample evidence of what psychologist John Suler has identified as the Online Disinhibition Effect: we escape online into a world where we’re disconnected from our true selves and our true compass. Our online behaviour distances us from our normal personalities and encourages us to develop different personas – one only has to observe the myriad online usernames that range from the fanciful to the outright frightening to know this is true.

I experienced this chasm and dehumanising effect first-hand in 1998, after I became the focus of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation. I instantly, overnight and worldwide, became a publicly known person and Patient Zero of internet shaming, losing my digital reputation in the process.

As I recounted in my TED talk, I was suddenly seen by many but actually known by few. It was so easy to forget that I, "that woman", was also dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken. Surprisingly, I can’t count how many times people have said hurtful and hateful things to me online in the past 20 years, but I can count – on just one or two hands – the times people have actually been cruel to my face.

There is, however, light beyond this darkness. I believe we are approaching a time in history similar to when the first mass-produced automobiles transformed the world. As I argued in a piece for Vanity Fair in 2014: “When the horse and buggy were replaced with the Model T, there were few rules of the road. Ultimately, we devised stricter regulations on which everyone could agree. Speed limits. Stop signs. And double yellow lines that were not to be crossed.”

So eventually, society caught up to this new technology and coalesced around the idea of needing safer ways to navigate daily life. I hope we are approaching that moment with the internet.

In the interim, as parents, teachers and concerned citizens, we can begin to shift the norms by being "upstanders". Instead of bystander apathy, stand up for someone online, report a bullying situation, or reach out to a target of bullying after the fact to let him or her know that someone witnessed what happened and is there for help or support.

As Theodore Pappas, executive editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica, has said: “Learning cannot happen amid an atmosphere of threats and intimidation. We know from experience that children who are cyberbullied are often physically bullied at school as well. That’s why cyberbullying must be the concern of all of us – students, teachers, parents, government, social media producers, and even educational publishers. We must all work together to battle this scourge affecting millions of students every day.”

This is so true. Schools especially have a duty to provide a safe environment for their students, protecting them from all forms of bullying. Building a greater awareness in the classroom will help both teachers and students understand the risks and learn how to prevent and respond to situations appropriately. The topic can be incorporated into the curriculum through PSHE and even RE lessons, and there are plenty of resources providing schools with guidance on the different forms of cyberbullying, characteristics to look out for, the legal requirements around safeguarding and the necessary training to ensure all school staff effectively manage such issues.

Every school should have a clear policy on tackling bullying – both offline and online – which should be shared with the whole school community. It’s only by talking about cyberbullying and exploring the topic as a school-wide discussion that everyone will realise the severity of the situation and support needed for solutions. In fact, according to Childnet International, many schools have found that creative approaches to discussing cyberbullying can be particularly effective – with students producing plays, films, songs, websites, games and posters.

I’m particularly supportive of the work The Diana Award’s Anti-Bullying Programme does in schools. I’ve seen first-hand how their effective strategy to train young people to be anti-bullying ambassadors provides peer-to-peer support and shifts the school’s culture.

We need also to continue the public discourse on this issue, which sheds a light on this crisis. We must find a way to support and heal the young people under assault and call out the perpetrators and rehabilitate them.

And there’s hope. We have addressed and fixed myriad social problems that have vexed our society in the past. Through a combination of the social values of compassion and empathy, married with increasing advances in technology, we can do so again. It’s time for the digerati of our online communities to step up and design tools to eradicate this social epidemic that is literally killing our young and affecting us all. Let’s never forget that we can build a society where the sometimes distancing effect of technology doesn’t remove our fundamental humanity.

Monica Lewinsky is a social activist, international public speaker, consultant, and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. An earlier version of this article ran in the Encyclopaedia Britannica Anniversary Edition: 250 Years of Excellence (1768-2018).

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