Bullying is nothing new -- teachers have always had to deal with it. But cyberbullying adds a horrible twist to an old problem. Cyberbullies use communication technology to harass their victims online. Their hurtful actions can include texting or emailing threats, publishing insults on blogs and social network pages, posting private photos, and impersonating others online in order to embarrass them.
Modern devices allow cyberbullies to torment their victims at any time of a day, away from adult supervision. The endless persecution can be devastating.
Most cyberbullying occurs off school grounds, but it still affects your classroom. Both bullied children and their bullies can suffer emotional, social, and learning problems. You care about your kids and you want to help, but that's difficult to do when you can't observe the problem behavior and react to it directly.
The secret nature of cyberbullying is a real challenge, but, as a teacher, you can watch for warning signs and follow up from there. Here are some clues that cyberbullying might be a problem for your students:
Conflict walks in the door.
Instead of tension building up throughout the day or over the course of several days (like "regular" bullying), it's there as soon as the students arrive. This is especially significant if the kids in conflict don't usually see each other outside of school. Verbal confrontations may seem one-sided because they happen without any leadup (that you can see), and fights and arguments might explode for no obvious reason. When you intervene, students often refuse to offer any explanations for their behavior. (Victims of cyberbullying usually won't tattle!)
Somebody's not laughing.
When a student's seemingly harmless comments or jokes get a big reaction from classmates, look around to see if anyone appears upset or angry instead of amused. The unhappy child could be the victim of cyberbullying. Innocent-sounding remarks and repeated words or phrases might be veiled insults that are meaningful in the context of online harassment. Other students are often aware of what's going on – and may even join in with the original bully – so they understand implications that aren't readily apparent to you.
Social relationships change.
It's only natural for kids' friendships to ebb and flow, but cyberbullying can cause drastic social changes. A bullied child may stop associating with his old friends if they dismiss the seriousness of his problem or become active participants themselves. Friends might cut off their relationship with a victim to protect their own social status. Fear of further harassment may cause victims to avoid their bullies at all costs.Look for the student who makes significant changes like hanging out with all new people or becoming a loner, changing to a new lunch table or avoiding the lunch room altogether, and dropping favorite activities. For today's kids, online communication is an important aspect of social life so becoming emotional when using technology or turning away from it completely can be particularly meaningful.
The repetitiveness and humiliation of cyberbullying can damage a victim's self-image. Bullied kids may end up hating everything about themselves, but they often begin by becoming self-critical in one particular area. That's because they're focusing on the same trait their bully is. They may start belittling themselves for this supposed flaw or go to extremes to hide it. Many victims try to change themselves in hopes their torment will stop. For example, a child bullied for being a good student might play dumb or "throw" a test. Harassment about weight might lead another victim into unhealthy eating habits. After remaking themselves, cyberbullied students may eagerly watch for positive reactions from others. Unfortunately, bullies can always come up with new taunts.
Signs of depression appear.
Depression has many possible causes, of course, but it can be one component of the cyberbullying picture. Depressed victims may become withdrawn, lose interest in schoolwork and social life, develop trouble with concentration, suffer headaches and stomachaches, ask repeatedly to go to the nurse, or miss school a lot. Students who suffer depression – whatever the cause – need immediate help! Depression can lead to serious problems like substance abuse, risk-taking behaviors, and suicidal thoughts.
You just have a feeling.
The warning signs of cyberbullying can be subtle and inconclusive, and most victims never tell adults what's going on. So sometimes you just have to rely on your teacher radar!
If you sense that a student is troubled – whether the problem is cyberbullying or something else – touch base often. Direct questioning may shut down communication, but frequent, casual conversations can build trust and encourage openness down the road. Other students might speak up if you provide anonymous methods of contact such as a comment box or teacher/student journal sharing. Once you get a handle on a cyberbullying situation, you can start helping your kids deal with it.
Not that you have to wait until you're faced with an actual problem. You can teach your students about cyberbullying right now! Talk about its harmfulness, foster empathy towards its victims, and encourage your kids to enlist adult help when they're aware it's going on. Most importantly, place this contemporary problem into the context of faith by promoting a classroom culture of kindness and respect.
by Diana R. Jenkins
After over twenty years as a special education teacher, Diana R. Jenkins became a freelance writer. She has written hundreds of magazine stories, articles, and comic strips for kids and teens. Her books include Goodness Graces! Ten Short Stories about the Sacraments, Stepping Stones – The Comic Collection, and Spotlight on Saints! A Year of Funny Readers Theatre for Today's Catholic Kids. Her latest book, Tackling Tough Topics with Faith and Fiction, is a resource for adults who want to help young teens face modern challenges with a faith perspective. Visit her on the web at www.dianarjenkins.bravehost.com, read her blog at http://djsthoughts-dj.blogspot.com, and find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dianajenkins.