Cyberbullying: Bullying in the 21st Century

Experts at AFSA’s Conference Provide Research and Solutions to the Problem

Originally posted in the fall 2011 edition of The Leader

Bullying is not new to schools. The difference between bullying now and how it was just a few years ago can be attributed to the increase of accessibility to the Internet and the affordability of new technology.

With the advent and subsequent boom of social media sites and electronic communications, bullies now have multiple ways to harass their victims. As Namita S. Brown, a partner at Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost law firm in Oakland who spoke at AFSA’s West  Coast Regional Leadership Conference in October, said, “The walls of the school house have been extended.”

An Education Week article recently defined cyberbullying as, “the use of digital media tools, such as the Internet and cell phones, to deliberately and repeatedly hurt, harass or embarrass someone else.” Although cyberbullying takes place in the digital and online world, there still exists some form of public humiliation. Venues for cyberbullying can include phones (calling people, texting and sharing photos), email accounts, instant messaging and social networking sites.

According to a 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center in Wisconsin, 83 percent of teens use a cell phone, 77 percent send text messages, 50 percent use Facebook, 46 percent use email and 40 percent take pictures with their cell phone. And if this weren’t enough, a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found the average American child spends 53 hours a week on media technology. What this indicates is that students, including bullies, utilize technology often, only exacerbating the problem of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying can be difficult for parents and school leaders to identify because the victims aren’t telling anyone about it and the bullying does not take place in plain sight. The victims, usually grade school or high school students, don’t show obvious warning signs that parents and educators can pick up on. Several examples of cyberbullying include:

  • Taking humiliating pictures of another student and then sharing the pictures with others;
  • Verbally abusing another student through texting;
  • Spreading rumors about or harassing a student on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or any other forms of social media; and
  • Sending nasty emails or instant messages (IMs) to their victims

In a recent study, by the Cyberbullying Research Center, a third of 10- to 18-year-olds say they’ve been cyberbullied. According to Sammer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, the directors for the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying can lead to “school problems such as tardiness and truancy, eating disorders, chronic illness, self-esteem problems, aggression, depression, interpersonal violence, substance abuse and other forms of delinquency.” Among other things, the danger with cyberbullying is that it can spread exceptionally quickly. The nasty, humiliating texts, photos, comments, gossip and threats are shown and shared by a large audience through reposting online or through mass texts or emails.

In this way, the cyberbullying travels so quickly the bully is able to “share” what he or she did to other students almost instantly. When the victim comes to school the next day, it isn’t just the bully who knows about the incident; it is everyone. The victim’s humiliation is even worse as more people know the nasty gossip, the cruel picture or the “funny” Facebook post.

Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, and Alice Marwick, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research and research affiliate at Harvard University, argued in a recent New York Times article that the problem with cyberbullying is most students and victims don’t see cyberbullying as a form of bullying. They describe it as “drama.” Using the word “drama” becomes a protective mechanism for them to diminish the power that bullies have; drama is something petty, something students don’t need to worry about. Boyd and Marwick say that students who admit they are being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, are slotted into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish. The underlying conclusion of their research is that students don’t want to see cyberbullying as bullying. They prefer to see it as harmless drama when really it is anything but that.

Another problem with cyberbullying involves school leaders and parents. Too often, school leaders and parents don’t understand the culture and power of social networking. They don’t realize how hurtful comments and pictures can be when posted online and the impact they have on students. Parents and school leaders, for the most part, did not have this technology growing up and therefore never dealt with cyberbullying when they were younger. This digital divide is an unfortunate and real problem when trying to handle and prevent cyberbullying.

Looking for solutions
What can school leaders, principals and administrators do to combat cyberbullying? What are some solutions? The first step is for school leaders to take cyberbullying seriously and understand it is a very real and dangerous form of bullying. Some school leaders may already have experienced the results of cyberbullying; in states such as Connecticut, the school board has cracked down on cyberbullying and put extreme pressure on school leaders and principals to solve cyberbullying as fast as possible.

Rebecca Randall, the vice president of education programs at Common Sense Media, spoke on the topic of cyberbullying at AFSA’s October leadership conference and said it is important to teach kids to “stand up, not stand by” and to encourage students to build a culture of kindness and respect. Randall also said it is crucial to teach digital literacy and citizenship to students.

“Unlike adults, kids don’t make the distinction between online and the real world,” Randall said. “They don’t realize they are creating these digital footprints online where everything can be traced back to them.”

Randall also said schools should provide a “go-to” adult whom students can trust and talk to about cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is especially difficult, Randall said, because it can last on the Internet or the victim’s phone for long periods of time, which causes incessant embarrassment and harassment. And because the bullying happens online, often the bully is anonymous and the harassment is seemingly inescapable.

Finally, Randall said schools should provide professional development to educators and administrators and set and enforce clear and realistic policies for cyberbullying. She also said educating parents on cyberbullying can help prevent it.

For more resources on cyberbullying and to learn more about Common Sense Media, visit