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Cyberbullying: Different solutions for a different problem?

July 21, 2010

Recently there has been a lot in the news and other media about the increasing incidents of cyberbullying. In the wake of many tragic events , such as the bullying/suicide of Phoebe Prince, over the past few years, there’s been more attention directed on this topic. Just a few days ago, author, speaker and security expert Christopher Burgess wrote in his blog about the need to do something more about the problem, and described Seattle Public Schools efforts along those lines.  Today, there’s an article in the Washington Post.

I’m glad to see people are taking this seriously: they should. What worries me is the approach.  Frankly, it’s just more of the same.

What I mean is, we’re approaching the problem of cyberbullying like it’s some new and different form of bullying. And fundamentally, it’s not. It’s bullying. Full stop. It’s essentially another “tool” to conduct bullying, but it’s the same thing.

Sure, there are some distinct features that make it potentially more troublesome than other forms of bullying. For example, because of the ubiquitous nature of the Internet or electronic media, you have a much easier way to spread rumors, hate-speech and other anti-social communication — it’s a shot-gun approach, not a rifle.  It can also be spread virally, as the damage can be propagated Also, in a lot of cases, the communication can be done anonymously.  So the bully, theoretically can do his/her damage and not be revealed or held accountable.  Further, cyberbullying can be done 7/24/365, from literally anywhere, and the impact can be permanent. Not only is information on websites frequently public, it is stored.  Who knows when awful false claims about someone might resurface?

But underlying it all is the same basic root cause as other bullying: lack of respect, compassion, empathy for other people and their feelings. Yet there is a huge call for programs and initiatives to specifically address cyberbullying.  Again, it’s using the bandaid to deal with another “surface” problem, but who is really looking at what CAUSES it in the first place?

In Mr. Burgess’ blog, he outlines a nine-lesson approach Seattle Public Schools is adopting.  Of those nine lessons, the first is about Respect and Responsibility…the balance of the lessons are specific to cyberbullying, with one lesson on bullying in general; two cover “what to do and where to get help.” We’re spending more time on management and mitigation than we are on prevention.

What if we took a different approach? What if 5 of the lessons were on Respect, Responsibility, Kindness, Compassion, Empathy, one was on types and impact of bullying and how bullying violates those “virtues,” one discusses cyberbullying specifically and the final one is “where to get more help?”  I would think that explaining to the kids the underlying reasons for WHY we don’t treat other people cruelly would set a better foundation for “here’s why bullying is bad.”  I mean, seriously: how many of us believe that kids bully because they haven’t been told it’s wrong?  Continuing to lecture them on “bullying is bad” isn’t going to make a whit of difference. Just like enacting legislation that makes bullying a crime isn’t going to result in a major dip in bullying incidents.  Yes, these things are necessary, but believing that “this time for sure, Bullwinkle” these outward-in approaches are going to fix things is false hope.

As I recently shared on an interview on Seattle’s Q13 Fox when asked if fixing bullying should fall to the schools or to the parents or community, “yes, all of the above.” But we need to go a step further than just working on managing the problem once it’s happened. We need to put in place those efforts — that education — that focuses on building positive cultures in schools, where  kids are each other’s advocates because they know WHY we don’t treat each other this way. We’ll then see bullying incidents virtually disappear (I know this to be true because our school clients have shared this), and you can then effectively deal with the exceptions. You’ll still need consequences in place for those times when bullying occurs, but you’ll need them far less because the general atmosphere of the school is based on mutual respect and courtesy.

And when the next “tool” for anti-social behavior comes out — which it inevitably will, — there’ll be less of an inclination to use it for “evil,” because there’s a greater number of young people (and adults, we hope) who know why doing so is wrong.


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