While Justin has recently posted a 2013 update on research-specific facts, I thought I’d provide a more general but broader update on all that we’ve learned and seen in the area of cyberbullying this year. Overall and in my opinion, it has been a great year and one that seems marked by solid progress made in schools, communities, and families who attempt to address and prevent harassment and hate online. Allow me to summarize my observations from 2013 below:
First, we have once again seen shifts in the popularity of various sites and apps among teens. Many times, the media is quick to demonize these online platforms and blame them specifically for promoting cyberbullying, but that is simply without merit.
We have repeatedly pointed out that cyberbullying is not the fault of the technology being used, but rather stems from root causes common to problems in human nature and human relationships. Simply put, cyberbullying arises when we have a population of teens who 1) are (naturally) struggling with their identity 2) dependent on peer perceptions for at least some of their self-worth 3) unable to always cope with stresses in their lives in a healthy way 4) unskilled in properly dealing with conflict 5) inconsiderate of the consequences of content shared or posted online 6) sometimes emotional, spontaneous, and shortsighted in their decision-making 7) lacking comprehensive education about etiquette, civility, empathy, and other socioemotional concepts both in the real world and online.
This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but those are the major factors. Please remember that the vast majority of users of a social network or app use it responsibly and properly. But there will be some who use it sometimes to harass, humiliate, or threaten others. Again, though, that is the minority (and often the vast minority) of users.
Second, we’ve spoken to tens of thousands of educators and students this year (and hundreds of thousands since we started). More and more of the policy and programming decisions being made in schools are informed, proactive, comprehensive, practical, and effective as compared to reactionary, misguided, piecemeal, ad-hoc, and disappointing in their utility. Years ago, many educators were simply not clued in to best practices that are currently evolving around the nation (and world) to deal with cyberbullying. They were often left to figure out things on their own, and this led to many well-intentioned but inappropriate methods of prevention and response. We have learned that technological restrictions and blocks are not very effective as kids have access to the Web on their smartphones in their pockets. We have learned that punitive responses – like suspending or expelling a kid – often don’t lead to a true change in behavior, nor deter the rest of the student body, nor always fit the offense (and overstepping one’s bounds in disciplinary measures may lead to lawsuits). We have learned that student assemblies work best when part of a larger multifaceted initiative (creating a positive school climate, social norming, student-led efforts, curriculum enhancements, staff and parent trainings) can be highly beneficial and valuable. As I stated in an AP article earlier this year, we ARE making progress. We should be encouraged. Outside of our Research Center, there are so many on the front lines of cyberbullying who are working very hard and making a real difference – and helping to get the right information into the hands of those who care for and work with teens. Our gratitude goes out to them as we continue fighting the good fight.
Finally, we are seeing great traction with efforts by teens to combat online cruelty with movements of kindness. We’ve fleshed this out in great detail in our latest book, but here I want to emphasize how big of a deal this is. If you are an educator, you understand that students themselves MUST lead the way. We’ve talked about Kevin Curwick, a (then) high-schooler who transformed his school via a Twitter account used to send out anonymous compliments to peers, and how this trend caught fire and led to students at many other schools doing the same thing on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. He recently said, “Being kind is popular at school now—that’s the thing to be. Things like this are needed. I’ve definitely seen a shift to a happier, lighter, more positive air around [my school]. You walk down the halls and see everyone smiling.” Here’s the kicker, according to Curwick, “Negativity gets people attention, but we can shift the tide, and use the Internet to be positive. A cool thing for me is bringing some hope about our generation.”
We completely agree. We’ve been to schools where – honestly – bullying and cyberbullying are not issues. They just aren’t. And this has been the result of lots of hard (but doable) work by students and educators there to cultivate and maintain an environment where people simply care about one another. That’s just how they do things there. And that simple philosophy has infiltrated all areas of interaction at that school. And all members of that school community subscribe to an informal “social contract” of sorts that perpetuates positive behaviors. It’s awesome. And it’s what is needed.
We wish you the best for 2014 as you tackle these issues at your school, and hope for small and large victories resulting from your efforts! As we keep you updated on what we’re learning, we’d love to hear from you about what you’re learning in the trenches (drop us a note!). And as always, Justin and I are here if you need anything.