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Pearson Australia Home
Interview #22: Tackling cyberbullying in schools
Cyberbullying has become a serious issue as young people become more dependent on technology for both educational and social use. There are a wide range of suggested approaches when it comes to cyberbullying, but due to the complex nature of the issue there is never a one size fits all approach.
We caught up with anti-bullying advocate and co-founder of Project Rockit, Lucy Thomas, on what she has learnt from young people around Australia when it comes to being proactive to prevent cyberbullying, and how to best prepare young people when dealing with these issues.
As a high profile advocate of anti-bullying, Lucy made her debut as an International speaker at the National Stop Girl Bullying Conference 2010 in Texas, and has made multiple appearances as a cyberbullying expert for Channel 7, CBS and ABC news, as well as Cleo and Dolly magazines.
Outside of Project Rockit, Lucy sits on the board of Minus18, Australia’s largest youth-led organisation supporting LGBT young people. She also holds the position of Senior Writer at SheRa Magazine, a Los Angeles based publication ‘for girls who think’.
Project Rockit is Australia’s youth driven movement against bullying, hate and prejudice. It was started ten years ago by my little sister Rosie and I when we finished school.
At the time we weren’t intending to start an anti-bullying organisation. We really just wanted to set up spaces where people can be themselves and have access to all of the social activities in schools that they may have felt they were previously not included in due to bullying or discrimination.
We started imagining what it would be like if people had equal access to real, social leadership opportunities or creative expression, acceptance and inclusion.
Unfortunately at school, we saw that those who were trying to tackle the bullying issue were ill-equipped and would just come in, lecture us and terrify us. There was an absence of real conversations about the social risks involved in standing up for yourself at any time in your life versus the real rewards and why we should stand up.
There is quite a bit of debate around the definition of cyberbullying. Typically bullying is described as a behaviour that causes someone to intentionally cause harm to another in a repeated or patterned manner, not just in a once-off incident. It also involves an imbalance of power.
With cyberbullying, it’s different because someone is using technology as a tool to harm another. They are using a medium that allows you to be anonymous, and allows you to not have to face the consequences as directly as you would if it occurred face-to-face.
The other thing that makes it complicated is that when we think about bullying being repeated, it is something that someone has to physically act out time and time again. When the behaviour is repeated in the online world, those who are experiencing it tend to revisit comments or posts at other times.
It becomes much more complex when someone might post one nasty quote but collectively, the online community moderates that content, affirms it, shares it or validates it.
The biggest difference between traditional offline bullying and cyberbullying is the 24/7 access that the online world provides to the person being harmed. There used to be a saying, ‘bullying starts and ends in the playground’ and a young person could go home and be safe at the end of the day. Now with it being online, that is not true.
Young people also experience good things in their life online, not just the hate or being targeted. If you cut off access or deny someone the capacity to reach or harm someone, you are also cutting them off from their social groups and the positive relationships they maintain in the online world. This makes it much more complicated to deal with.
This 24/7 online access is a positive and negative avenue in their life. Therefore, cyberbullying is much more complex and multilayered than traditional offline bullying. There is quite a range of social and political factors within a young person's life, as well as their cultural background that influence how these issues play out online.
Some research suggests that it impacts a person’s long-term academic and professional outcomes, and their social relationships. What we often see is that cyberbullying can make it difficult for young people to feel like they can be themselves.
Metaphorically, if someone is being bullied, they carry around all those negative messages in their head. When someone is being cyberbullied they literally carry those negative messages around in the palm of their hand.
It also has an impact on those who are bystanders and observers, whether it be cyberbullying or traditional offline bullying. It’s really about empowering people to stand up instead of standing by.
We really need to find ways to balance the negative messaging that someone might be receiving with some positive or more uplifting messages about who they really are. In reality, they are not alone, and people do care about them, we just need to help them realise that.
What we have picked up from young people is that they often they tend to push themselves further into the online world. You may very well see an increase in checking their phone in order to see what is going on or just spending more time looking for online support.
They may also become withdrawn from the offline world as they often receive advice from adults to ‘just turn off your phone if you’re having a hard time’.
Telling a young person to turn off their phone is really unrealistic. Many young people tell us that when they’re being harassed online, they want to have a sense of what is going on around them, hence the deep dive into the online world.
We have to be really careful not to tell young people in those moments to switch off their phone and look at ways that they can maintain those positive aspects of the online world instead. We should teach them to cut off the hate that is happening or develop the confidence to report or block people targeting them.
One of the reasons is because they are scared it is going to get worse.
It can be very difficult for adults in a cyberbullying scenario because young people tell us that when they speak to adults, they tend to jump to conclusions about what is going on. A lot of young people are hesitant to talk to adults as well because they are worried that their technology will be taken away from them or they’re worried that they are going to get in trouble.
We need to tell young people, if you’re afraid they’re going to bulldoze the situation and make things worse, say so. If you’re afraid they’re going to punish you by taking away your technology, say so. If you don’t actually want them to take action and just be an ear and be there for you with what’s going on, just say so.
The biggest thing teachers can do is to be proactive and deal with these issues ahead of time. We need to make sure we are talking about cyberbullying, as well as what your rights and responsibilities are in the online world.
We become reactive when a parent makes a complaint, which by then is sometimes too late. Schools typically have healthy preventative measures but lack the appropriate responses to the actual situation when it occurs.
Usually in the online world there are two sides to the story, there is never a clear ‘victim’ or a ‘hater’ who is being the bully. Project Rockit in particular are against using labelling language.
Proactive programs in education that get ahead of episodes of cyberbullying help us learn to avoid jumping to conclusions. We should start to take the time to hear the whole situation from different perspectives and where possible, how we can collaborate with the young people involved to address these issues together, rather than swooping in and trying to manage the situation with a top-down approach.
It is extremely important to treat a young person as a whole person and prepare them for difficult experiences in life. Project Rockit also has a big focus on identity and the entire value of young people.
There’s a huge expectation of young people that they should stand up to bullying, hate and prejudice. The question we ask is how do they stand up when they don’t know what it is they stand for?
We need to help young people to learn more about themselves and what they stand for. We need to also be able to help them to recognise that when they experience that terrible gut feeling when something is wrong, it is usually because some of their core values are being violated.
When do we need to be prepared to act for those values, and how do we understand the social risks involved in acting, as well as the perceived and realistic risks in standing up?
From an early stage, young people need to learn about their identity and develop emotional intelligence so that they see cyberbullying isn’t a technological issue, it's actually a social issue that plays out in the technological space.
Overall, I think there is a problem with messaging around cyberbullying issues. When you turn on the news, you get the message that all young people are using technology negatively. The message that comes across is that they are using it as a vehicle for hate, and using it to be horrible to other people.
In fact working in schools, that does not reflect the way we see young people using technology. What we need to do is move the spotlight, and create healthy positive norms about the way we use technology. We also need to look at ourselves from a cultural perspective and look at the examples we are setting for young people as this does filter down to schools.
We should stop using labels when it comes to cyberbullying and start looking at how we can all start making incremental steps to making healthier decisions online.
It also needs to be understood that there are complex ethical reasonings that young people make with all their online interactions. Ultimately, we all need help navigating these decisions, and having these conversations earlier contributes to a healthier, more positive online spaces.
There is a real divide between parents and teachers. The frustrations we often hear from teachers is that they run information nights about cyberbullying, but the only people that show up are parents who are already engaged and literate around cyberbullying.
On the flipside, we also hear from parents who are frustrated because they feel there is a lack of response to a situation that has been affecting their child for a while. When talking about the situation, there is a tendency to ask the question ‘whose fault it is?’ or ‘whose responsibility is it to act in the situation?’
We need to focus on how we can collaborate and include the young people in that responsibility, as well as how we can change the situation. Bringing actual collaboration between young people, parents and teachers instead of playing the blame game is much more effective.
Project Rockit is a great resource when it comes to dealing with this situation as we run face-to-face workshops. We look at issues such as cyberbullying, identity, values, leadership, tackling and challenging social labels and judgement in the online world.
In 2017 we are launching online workshops, which can be done anywhere with an internet connection and comes with a whole suite of resources and activities for teachers as well.
There are also resources on the eSafety website. Australia is lucky enough to have an eSafety Commission whose sole responsibility is looking out for young people in the online world. They work closely together with organisations such as Project Rockit, as well as social media platforms to better deal with these issues, and to make sure that we’re all lined up to support young people when stuff goes wrong.
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation also has an e-Smart School Framework for how your school can be more proactive in eSafety.
Ultimately, the biggest asset any school can have is starting a student led, youth driven initiative within your school. Discussion groups that happen in schools really work as they are owned by the student cohort and are peer driven.
At a classroom and everyday level, it is important to have conversations about things like emotional resilience, and forming positive emotional bonds with peers.
I think that schools are increasingly beginning to recognise the place of this kind of learning and the way that it can be applied in the classroom. You don’t need a huge budget to have conversations about these issues and you don’t need the most up-to-date technology. These positive conversations will in turn impact the online environment at your school.
Australian Human Rights Commission - Cyberbullying: what is it and how to get help: Violence, Harassment and Bullying Fact sheet
Kids Helpline - Understanding Cyberbullying
Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner
Reach Out - Cyberbullying
Lucy Thomas, co-founder and co-CEO of Project Rockit, is a Melbourne University graduate with Graduate and Postgraduate Diplomas in Psychology, as well as a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Honours). She has over 10 years of experience in group facilitation, public speaking and youth work where she has personally reached thousands of young people.
Since launching the 'In Conversation' series in 2015, we now have a collection of interviews to present, with more arriving each month!
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