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Technological Taunting

Cyberbullying is especially insidious becasue it can be 24-7 and anonymous.

By Vinu Ilakkuvan

A revealing picture of a ninth-grader spreads like wildfire on student smartphones. Accusations of Facebook flirting with a friend’s girlfriend spark a fight in the locker room. A nasty string of online comments leads to exclusion and dirty looks in second period, while a barrage of hateful text messages eats away at a teenager’s self-esteem.

Sadly, to many educators here in Virginia, these are familiar stories.

As more—and younger—children spend more time on the Internet and on cell phones, bullying behaviors that were once limited to in-person interactions at school are also finding a place online at all hours of the day. When the effects of bullying that takes place using electronic technologies spill over into the school day (either directly because the cyberbullying is happening on school property or indirectly because the effects of the cyberbullying are being felt by students during the school day), it becomes something that educators must address.  

Any unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time, is bullying.  Cyberbullying is characterized by these very same dynamics, and kids who are being cyberbullied are often bullied in person as well.

It is important, however, to distinguish between bullying rooted in some kind of bias and other types of bullying. As noted by the Department of Education, any discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex or disability crosses the line from bullying into discrimination that schools receiving federal funding are required by law to address. In addition, specific types of bias-based bullying, such as sexual harassment and racial discrimination, likely require education and prevention that address these issues explicitly and specifically.

Because bullying has become an umbrella term for a wide range of actions, it is helpful to be as specific as possible. When discussing an incident, try to explain exactly what happened (rumor-spreading, teasing, exclusion, physical violence, negative comments online, etc.) and on what basis it happened (discriminatory harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other factor; turf wars; teasing based on a physical or personality trait). This will allow you to better identify what steps to take to both address the situation at hand and prevent similar ones in the future. It’s also important to label the behavior, not the individual. When we call a student a “bully” or a “victim” it boxes them into that role, suggesting that they will always be one or the other. A student could be a bully in one situation and a victim in another.

While the dynamics of bullying are similar online and in person, there are a few characteristics that distinguish cyberbullying from bullying that takes place offline: Cyberbullying can go on 24/7, can instantaneously reach thousands (or even more) people, and can be anonymous. Some researchers have suggested that these characteristics make cyberbullying even more damaging to targeted youth.
Cyberbullying can mean a range of different actions, including sending, posting, or forwarding rumors or embarrassing or mean messages, pictures or videos; creating and promoting websites intended to harm others; creating fake profiles; and more. Sexting, or the exchange of sexually suggestive or nude images via cell phones, is an example of cyberbullying that can have legal implications. In the U.S., the transmission of sexually explicit images of children constitutes child pornography and can result in criminal prosecution.

While both bullying and cyberbullying have captured significant media attention in recent years, it’s important to keep in mind that:

• There is no research evidence that bullying has increased over time. It is by no means an epidemic, and studies indicate rates of bullying have largely stayed the same, or perhaps even gone down a little.

• Various research studies indicate that in-person bullying continues to be more prevalent than cyberbullying (although some have argued this is due to students underreporting cyberbullying because they are unaware of the kinds of behaviors that constitute it).

While the numbers may say that bullying has not been growing dramatically, that’s little consolation to its victims. The devastating impact bullying can have on young people makes it something that very much needs to be effectively prevented and addressed by educators and schools, as well as by our broader society.

There are still some who brush off bullying as “kids being kids” or “just a part of growing up”, but it’s not: Research shows that bullying behavior has serious effects on the emotional, behavioral, mental and physical health of young people, as well as on their academic performance. In addition, at the level of a school or community, bullying can contribute to a negative and unsafe atmosphere.
Young people who are bullied have higher risks of depression and anxiety, are more likely to have health complaints (such as stomachaches and headaches), are more likely to retaliate through violent measures, and have decreased academic achievement and school participation. But bullying victims aren’t the only ones we need to be concerned about. Those who witness bullying also have increased risks of mental health problems and substance abuse, and are more likely to miss or skip school. Those who bully others are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs and to be abusive towards others later in life; get into fights, vandalize property, and drop out of school; engage in early sexual activity; and have criminal convictions. While these negative behaviors may not necessarily be caused by bullying, they are all part of a pattern of misbehavior that has potential to be corrected and reversed if addressed early and effectively.
Bullying also reaches beyond the individuals involved, contributing to a negative school climate which has repercussions of its own. And a negative school climate means more than a lot of people in a bad mood: Research shows us that school climate is associated with youth development, the success of risk prevention and health promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, student graduation rates, and teacher retention. It is worth highlighting research linking bullying at school with decreased academic performance and attendance. Researchers from the University of Virginia found that students in our state scored significantly lower on Standards of Learning tests in schools with a high rate of bullying. At the national level, research indicates that each day in the United States, about 160,000 students stay home from school for fear of being bullied.

The far-reaching effects of bullying show how critical effective prevention is. Given that the dynamics of cyberbullying and in-person bullying are largely the same, the primary tools for prevention of both are identical as well.

The emerging consensus on bullying prevention is to take a comprehensive approach, with systems in place for the entire school, for the classroom and for individuals. The Colorado Trust (a grant-making foundation dedicated to advancing health and well-being, and leader of an $8.6 million bullying prevention initiative) suggests the following best practice strategies in bullying prevention and intervention:

1. Regularly assess the social climate in schools and other youth-centered environments.

2. Make bullying prevention an integral and permanent component of the school environment.

3. Establish and enforce school rules and policies related to bullying.

4. Provide ongoing training for school staff, and increase adult supervision in locations identified as “hot spots” for bullying.

5. Form a team responsible for coordinating bullying prevention efforts.

6. Garner the support of school staff, parents and other key partners.

7. Give young people an active and meaningful role in bullying prevention efforts.

8. Develop cultural competency strategies, skills and programs that are inclusive and enhance communication and relationship-building.

Other important best practice strategies include setting aside class time for bullying prevention and social-emotional learning and skill-building, as well as working to change social norms among students so that bullying becomes “uncool.” It’s also critical that the standard response by educators and students alike becomes stepping up to help those being targeted.

While these bullying prevention measures should form the cornerstone of your school’s efforts, and will help create a climate that helps prevent bullying online and off, there are specific steps to take with regards to cyberbullying in particular.

Cyberbullying is a tricky problem for schools, particularly when it happens off schools grounds and outside school hours, as is often the case. Nonetheless, many schools and educators have justified taking action on the grounds that the effects of cyberbullying are felt by students while at school, and can often spill over into in-person bullying there, as well. In addition to addressing issues of cyberbullying when they happen, schools and teachers can contribute to prevention efforts by providing students with skills necessary to stay safe online.

Free resources such as OnGuard Online’s “Heads Up: Stop, Think, Click” (which can be ordered in bulk for free at may provide a useful starting point. This tool for children and teenagers highlights important ideas we need to help them understand:

• Your online actions can have real-world consequences.
• What you post could have a bigger “audience” than you think.
• Once you post information online, you can’t take it back.
• Get someone’s OK before you share photos or videos they’re in.
• Politeness counts.
• Tone it down.
• Use cc and Reply All sparingly.
• Avatars are people too.
• Don’t impersonate anyone.
• Speak up.
• Don’t stand for bullying – online or off.

When it comes to bullying and cyberbullying, it’s crucial to keep in mind that simply focusing on prevention of negative behaviors is not enough—and does our students a disservice. Problem-free does not mean fully prepared, and it’s critical to go beyond prevention to provide students with opportunities to learn about pro-social behaviors, healthy relationships and safe and effective use of technology.

The field of positive youth development is focused on this change of perspective, aiming to foster the “5 C’s” – caring, connection, confidence, character and competence – in youth. The Search Institute’s Developmental Assets also provide a framework for positive youth development, highlighting both external and internal assets (external assets: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time; internal assets: commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, positive identity).

An important component of fostering youth development and taking a positive approach to preventing bullying and other negative outcomes is developing a sustainable, positive school climate. According to the National School Climate Center (an organization that helps schools integrate crucial social and emotional learning with academic instruction), such a climate includes:

• Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe.

• People are engaged and respected.

• Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision.

• Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.

• Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.

Focusing on positive youth development and positive school climate allows not only for a crucial reframing of our work (helping  youth feel safe and happy, and like productive members of society), but also integration across different behaviors. Bullying, sexual and dating violence, suicide, and a host of other violence behaviors, as well as issues such as substance abuse and mental health difficulties, share common risk and protective factors.

Yet programs designed to address these behaviors are often operated in silos. As schools are bombarded with dozens of evidence-based programs to address these different issues, often implemented by different school personnel with little or no coordination, it becomes difficult to sustain programs over time, as schools jump to the topic or program du jour.

Approaches that are integrated and comprehensive, while still maintaining safe and accurate messaging and practices specific to different behaviors, are critical. Similarly, moving from merely prevention to the proactive promotion of health, social and emotional learning, and well-being is an important step to building safe and supportive schools and communities.

Ilakkuvan ( served as the Bullying and Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Health through September 2012, before accepting a position with a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.


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