Dealing with Cyber bullies

Schools face challenges protecting students from social media’s dark side

When students at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School received laptops at the start of the 2010-11 school year, the idea was “to prepare students for the dynamic and ever-changing world in which they’ll study, live and work.”

No one predicted the Facebook-enabled Gossip Girl-esque drama that ensued for a week in the fall. Or that students would easily get past administrative blocks to use Facebook, Skype, and play video games during class.

At another Southwest-area school, a similar social media drama caught parents and school officials off-guard when one student trash-talked the members of an extra-curricular group on its Facebook page.

Technology has put a new twist on the jeers and teasing that were formerly relegated to the cafeteria and playground. Teasing and bullying now continue after school hours on Facebook and via text messages.

“What’s changed is that it’s become 24 hours a day,” said David Winkler-Morey, a social worker at Anthony Middle School. “It can go on all night long: texting, Facebook, instant-messaging.”

The all-pervasive atmosphere of cyberbullying has changed the fabric of social dynamics for tweens and teens, leading to missed school and, in extreme cases, even suicide.

“Technology is a game-changer,” said David Walsh, founder of the now-defunct National Institute on Media and the Family and Mind Positive Parenting. “You can invade a person’s private space — you can go to their Facebook page and no one knows who’s doing it. The spread of rumors and taunts can be widespread and instantaneous. And the other significant difference is that when we’re in face-to-face contact with someone, the brain’s prefrontal cortex acts as a social sensor, reading nonverbal cues. Kids will say things online that they would never say face to face. It explains the national data that shows that 13 percent report face-to-face bullying and 38 percent report online bullying.”

In Minnesota, a statute requires school boards to prohibit cyberbullying, and Minneapolis Public Schools has taken it a step further, applying its policy to “any misuse of technology that is bullying or hazing behavior regardless of whether such acts are committed on or off District property and/or with or without the use of school district resources.”

“Cyberbullying has an impact on the educational setting whether or not it happens in the school day,” said Julie Young-Burns, the district’s coordinator for safe and drug-free schools.

Still, most cyberbullying goes undetected, leaving a strange triangle of parents, social network site administrators, and law enforcement to juggle enforcement. Often, the ball drops.

Sarah Secretive

Benilde St. Margaret’s has an acceptable use policy that states: “All messages or communication of any kind sent from student laptops, whether at school or away from school, must contain only appropriate content and may not be used to bully, harass, intimidate, insult, threaten, or gossip.”

But for a week or so last fall, BSM students were riveted to one Facebook page that ran counter to the policy: Sarah Secretive, who claimed to be the gossipmonger of BSM: “Your daily source of reliable information,” she wrote. “Think you have the next blast? Post it or email it.” Three days after the first post, the page had 292 Facebook friends.

Students are on Facebook “constantly,” says Emma Eldred, a junior at BSM and no relation to the author, who wrote about it for the student newspaper. With so many online distractions and interruptions, Eldred finds it hard to get homework done by a reasonable hour.

Much of the Sarah Secretive gossip was trivial, Eldred says: so-and-so shared an intimate hug outside their lockers, or who’s dating who. But some posts were ugly enough to keep at least one hurt student home from school.

When school administrators emailed the unidentified student and Facebook, the page was taken down.

“It’s one of those things where you know it’s bad, so you don’t want to participate, but you can’t not,” Eldred said. “It’s a guilty pleasure. You’re still going to go read what she wrote.”

While Sarah Secretive was stifled, Eldred’s not convinced it won’t happen again. Socializing, she said, is almost completely online — unless you count videochatting as personal interaction.

“Everyone’s always online,” she said. “They say they can always see what we’re doing, but they can only watch so many people.”

Still, she isn’t ready to turn in her laptop.

“Nobody has it figured out,” Eldred said. “I do think the laptops are a great choice for the students to have; it just makes life so much easier, and it’s such a great learning tool. But we have yet to figure out how to monitor them. Students need to learn how to balance their time and their learning style. Eventually it’s going to click that oh, hey, I’m playing video games in history and failing the tests.”

When emoticons don’t work

In another case in Southwest Minneapolis, a member of an extracurricular activity posted inflammatory messages about his peers on a Facebook page. When one student leaked it to a parent, the parent was uncertain how to respond, partly from fear of retaliation.

“What code of conduct does that come under?” asks Minneapolis Public Schools parent Judy McQuade.

In this case, many peers probably thought the messages were funny, McQuade said.

“But that’s the scary part — it’s not just what the kid writes, it’s the impact it has on the receiver. If one person feels it’s been abusive then it has. It’s in the eye of the receiver. Nine out of 10 might think this is funny, haha, one might think you’re picking on me and that’s bullying.”

Anthony Middle School sixth-grader Danee Voss learned about online misunderstanding the hard way.

“Facebook and email are how I mostly communicate outside of school,” Voss said. “Once I was playing a joke with my friend. I tagged a funny photo about an old crush and she took it the wrong way. I explained it to her at school, and I took it down. But she was still mad for a while.”

The possibility that adults are often one step behind kids in technology doesn’t help, says Shayla Thiel-Stern, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication who conducts research on youth and new media.

“Parents should be more educated about what’s possible online,” Thiel-Stern said. “There are tools they can use to monitor what’s going on. And administrators are often really hesitant to get involved for fears of liability — and they have a lot on their plates already. But who else could? It’s the perfect opportunity for them to teach students to be decent human beings.”

What works

Walsh of Mind Positive Parenting visited two schools within the space of a couple of weeks, and noticed a huge difference. One school, in West Virginia, had a no cell-phone use policy (as many do). But at this school, unlike many, it was enforced. Back in the Twin Cities, he visited another school with a similar policy that was not enforced. “I was talking to a group of juniors, and halfway through, I realized most of them were not even listening,” he said. “They were texting. After the session, I asked about the school’s cell phone policy.” The answer? “We’ve given up.”

Recent suicides related to cyberbullying led Anthony Middle School to take proactive measures, including a humanities class project that made life-size cardboard cutouts representing different groups or cliques and wrote poems with them.

The kids say it’s working: “I’ve seen people reading the poems,” said sixth-grader Josie Madden. “And the idea was to get people to reflect on them.”

“There are a lot more connections now between groups, and less fighting,” added sixth-grader Sammy Cozine.

Indeed, changing the culture of bullying is what works, according to recent research.

“What really makes the difference is when kids go from supporting the bully to supporting the victim,” said Winkler-Morey. “Technology keeps changing, so you could keep changing policies, but if you change how kids respond to it … instead of 30 people saying ‘like,’ if they say ‘this is mean,’ it’s going to stop. Ultimately, that’s what we need.”

Walsh agrees.

“The idea is to change the social norms that it’s not OK,” he said. “The good news is, we’re talking about it more and the more.”

He recently visited South Korea, the most technologically advanced country in the world, where “they’re much further down the road in addressing cyberbullying and addiction,” Walsh said. “They teach netiquette in preschool,” he said.

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance writer in the ECCO neighborhood. Read more of her work at This story was funded in part by the Spot.Us community.