Remember the ‘Burn Book’ in the movie “Mean Girls?” A group of “popular” high school girls cut out pictures of their peers from their yearbooks, and wrote dirt and gossip about them in this book? They would then share this dirt with each other and use it to be mean to other kids in their class.
It’s mean, petty, dangerous, and what I used to think was totally unrealistic; a Hollywood exaggeration to make people laugh.
And then I became a teacher.
In 2004, this type of cruelty was recorded in a paper notebook and passed between a small group of people. In 2017, gossip, rumors, and abuse is spread through social media where the audience is limitless. Just this week one of my students was the target of cyberbullying, where one student spread terrible rumors on Snapchat about her. Within 12 hours of posting, most of the students in all of my classes knew about the rumor, but did not know that it wasn’t true.
The girl in my class was humiliated, and spent most of the school day in the counseling office crying, and the following day at home, ashamed to show her face in school.
When you are a teacher with your ear to the ground, you find that this kind of thing happens more often than you think. For reasons as old as humanity, kids lash out at each other to cause intentional pain. It is an epidemic that leads to self-harm, growing suicide rates, and an increasing number of kids with anxiety and depression.
While the problem of cyberbullying is an issue that needs to be addressed as a society and cannot be solved by any one person, teachers are at the front line and can have a major impact in ending this problem.
1. Teach Digital Citizenship
Teachers hold a captive audience, and what we say has a tremendous impact on our students. While not every word we say is retained by the kids in our classes, students are often listening. Instead of just using this influence to teach math, science, English, and history, teachers also need to speak out against destructive practices like cyberbullying.
Hold class discussions about it. Share suicide statistics. Get on a pedestal every now and then. It’s easy to think that everyone knows the consequences of cyberbullying, but many do not, and the classroom should be a place for them to learn.
2. Connect with Parents
The internet is still fairly new, and therefore cyberbullying is also a recent issue. Many parents do not know how to deal with it or know what signs to look for to spot it. Encourage parents to stay involved in their students’ online lives by asking questions, being open with their kids, and even monitoring their online activity. Of course it is the parents’ decision on how they raise their kids, but teachers can share what they know and are seeing.
A great avenue to start these conversations with parents are through administration. Ask your principal if you can help draft an email to parents to start this conversation.
3. Report it
I’ve overheard students talking about friends of theirs being targeted online, and even about how they themselves are targeting a certain person. My temptation is to ignore what I heard and avoid getting involved in students’ problems. However, this only allows abuses to continue. Adults need to report cyberbullying when they see it and do everything they can to end it. In every situation I’ve been in to report or deal with what I’ve seen, the victim of the bullying appreciates the support. Students should know that no matter what, their teacher has their back.
4. Empower Student Leaders
Teachers and administrators can definitely help to prevent cyberbullying in schools, but no one is as influential as the students. Students should be empowered to be leaders who stand against mean behavior online. Encourage students to report abuses, stand against bullies, and comfort those who are attacked. Anti-bullying groups and organizations are good and should be encouraged, but the most impact comes when students feel empowered to stand against it in their own social circles.
When the girl in my class was targeted online this week with damaging rumors, she felt alone and ostracized. She felt as if her reputation was ruined and that she had no place in our school.
But then another girl in my class put an arm around her and assured her she is not alone. Following this example, many other students gave this same assurance, and essentially denounced what was said on social media.
A teacher has many roles, but probably the biggest is ensuring the safety of their students. Because of the internet, this is more difficult than ever before. However, it’s also more important.