Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Getting Students to Trust You and Tell When They are Cyberbullied

Peers Are the First, Schools Are the Second, and Parents Are the Last to Know

Who knows about cyberbullying before anyone else? The students. Sometimes they know it before the victim does. Mean Girl cyberbullies need the help of bystanders for their cyberbullying tactics to work. They need them to vote on the poll for the ugliest, fattest, and most unpopular students. They need them to spread the rumors and IMs. They need them to post nasty comments on the victim’s profile. They need them to pass around the embarrassing images. They need their admiration and attention, and they need to show everyone that others will let them get away with their cyberbullying antics.

Sometimes the victim hasn’t yet seen the profiles, heard the rumors, or viewed the pictures when others have. The faster any cyberbullying posts and activities can be discovered and reported, the more successful the shutdown is. By waiting for the victim to encounter the attacks and work up the courage to tell someone, precious time is wasted—time that permits the cyberbullying campaign to spread beyond containment.

If the school has an anonymous tipline, cyberbullying can be reported by students who encounter it, without worrying about being identified as the one who reported it. The advance knowledge of the students, when coupled with awareness of the importance of early reporting, can make all the difference in the world. Find ways to get the students involved and empower them to help create systems to prevent and address cyberbullying once it starts. Convince them of the dangers of cyberbullying and how much it hurts. Teach them to use more care when communicating with others and to take the time to apologize if they hurt the feelings of others.

The StopCyberbullying Pledge has been very successful in getting students to care and to take a stand against cyberbullying. Get them motivated first, then get them involved in helping frame approaches and systems. Listen to them carefully. This is something they know better than anyone. While they may not have all the answers, they have some, and need you to work with them to provide the rest.

Parents are the last to know and, if the victim has their way, will never know. Remember this before you make the call to the parents. While you may not have a choice (or even if you do, getting parents involved may be the right and only choice), talk with the victim about their concerns and help address them while you are reaching out to their parents. Warn the parents about their child’s concerns and how telling is hard for them. Remind the parents that the right first move is to give their child a hug and tell them how sorry they are that this has happened and that they promise not to make things worse. Make sure the student is consulted on what they think is the right approach and their worries. Then address the cyberbullying, always keeping the student’s safety and feelings involved.

We must convince parents to promise their children in advance that if they are cyberbullied they will not punish the child or overreact. Spend some time teaching the parents what to do and how to address the issues. Help them prepare. The better prepared they are and the better they can convey that to their kids, the more likely it is that their children will trust them.

Even then, though, some things are too hard or too embarrassing to share with their parents. Read Debbie Johnston’s story about her son, Jeff. Jeff’s bully (who bullied him online and offline) told everyone Jeff was gay. (Not that it should make any difference, but he apparently wasn’t.) Jeff could never have confided this to his mother, no matter how close they were. (His mom is an incredible woman, but he didn't want anyone to know about the false rumors.)

Students need to know where they can turn when embarrassing information, true or false, is being disseminated. A school guidance counselor can help here by letting students know where they can come for help, without fearing that embarrassing information will taint them or get out. Reaching out to well-regarded charities and community organizations can be helpful here. Ask them how to make their expertise available to students. Turn to them for help if something special that falls under their expertise arises. Create a relationship so you can move quickly if the need arises later.

Planning is key to helping meet students’ needs here and to potentially save a student’s life.