Cyberbullying is real – here’s help

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

A teacher’s recent email note to me asking for information about cyberbullying triggered powerful, unhappy memories. Her inquiry led me into the fascinating world of “cyberbulling.” The more I learned, the more convinced I became that this definitely is something families should discuss with youngsters this summer, if they haven’t already.

My unhappy memories include a middle school music class about 50 years ago, where I was the subject of repeated verbal and physical harassment. The bully was a much larger student who threatened to “really mess me up” if I reported him. A 2013 University of Texas study found that victims of bullying reported “anxiety, depression, confusion, lowered self-esteem” and even thoughts of suicide. I felt all of that.

Finally, I mentioned the situation to my parents. They urged me to talk with the teacher, despite the bully’s threats. The teacher skillfully brought the bully and me together. We talked about what was acceptable and the consequences of bullying. Fortunately, he stopped bothering me.

Bullying is not always so simple or easily ended. But I recalled that experience when I began gathering information in response to the teacher’s request.

Facebook, which can be a source of problems, was very helpful in this case. Within an hour of posting a question, eight people responded with very helpful resources.

Minnesota Sen. Scott Dibble urged use of an excellent federal website, http://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying. Let’s start with their definition: “Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles.”

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that about 10 percent of more than 24 million middle and high school youngsters reported being a victim of cyberbullying in 2011.

Josh Collins of the Minnesota Department of Education shared the 2013 Minnesota School Student Survey, which involved 80 percent of Minnesota’s district and charter public schools, and about two-thirds of the state’s students in grades five, eight, nine and 11. This survey found that 10-15 percent of students in grades five through 11 reported they had been victims of cyberbulling in the past month. A great feature of the Minnesota Student Survey is that you can find responses for participating districts and individual schools; it’s online at http://bit.ly/MNStudentSurvey.

One of the best resources is the National Bullying Prevention Center, run in Minnesota by the nonprofit PACER Center, http://www.pacer.org/bullying/about.

Julie Hertzog, who has a master’s degree in counseling and is herself a parent, directs the Bullying Prevention Center. She suggested that in thinking about cyberbullying, parents think about how they prepare youngsters to go to a mall or shopping center. First of all, have a conversation. Don’t just “send them off, whether it’s to the mall or to the cyber world found on a phone or computer.” Secondly, agree on some rules. For example, if there’s a problem, let the parent know. Don’t just keep problems to yourself. And third, “Have an awareness of what your child is doing in the cyber-world.” PACER has many helpful resources including a booklet, “Cyberbullying: What Parents Can Do,” sponsored by Century Link. The booklet is at www.pacer.org/publications/bullypdf/BP-23.pdf.

A great one-page summary of tips about cyberbullying comes from two professors who have studied this issue: http://www.cyberbullying.us/Top_Ten_Tips_Parents_Cyberbullying_Response.pdf.

Nancy Riestenberg, school climate specialist at MDE, urged conversations with youngsters that establish “expectations of helping — not hurting.” Agreed.   MDE offers other suggestions at http://bit.ly/1pgy3RA.

One of the most intriguing resources was an eight-page report done by two University of Texas researchers; it’s online at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jcrim/2013/735397. I will return to this study in another column, and other resources that people suggested, because they are focused on what schools should do about cyberbullying. But I do want to recommend the article to educators.

Everything I read stressed: Don’t ignore cyberbullying. It’s real; it’s here.

If you haven’t discussed this with your youngsters, please do. I hope the resources mentioned above are useful. Please email any stories you care to share about your experiences with cyberbullying.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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