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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Students leery of school cyberbullying actions: What to do

In light of some egregious cases in the news, we're naturally seeing more and more calls for schools to take action against cyberbullying. Not surprisingly, students are wary of school interventions. "The effectiveness of adult interventions depends a lot 'on context, school culture, climate, as well as the way in which each intervention is carried out,'" we hear from students who've been bullied, according to the Youth Voice Project. And in this week's newsletter feature, students told Dr. Patricia Agatston in the Atlanta area that they felt school intervention "doesn’t really help" and cited a situation where the cyberbullying of a student "got worse" and "more secretive" when administrators intervened. Clearly, if we want students to trust administrative action and help out their peers by reporting cruel behavior, we're going to have to get this right. We need to read past headlines like the Washington Post's "Make strong anti-bullying programs mandatory in schools" to the well-reported content of the article: "Unfortunately, most schools don’t have programs, and many don’t have the ones known to be most effective. Researchers say that the only kind of anti-bullying program with any hope of reducing such behavior involves the entire school community" (I recommend the whole article). There's a reason why students are concerned and a reason why we need to take their concerns seriously: in order to have their necessary involvement in resolving problems and implementing effective solutions. [For more experts on the how-to for schools, see "Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying: Whole school response is key," "Social norming: *So* key to online safety," and "Major obstacle to universal broadband & what can help."]

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Student leaders' views on cyberbullying

The other day, Patricia Agatston – school risk-prevention specialist and co-author of Cyber Bullying Prevention Curriculum for Grades 6-12 and Grades 3-5 – met with 30 student leaders at a high school in the state of Georgia. She asked them for their thoughts on cyberbullying.

"I found this discussion fascinating," she later wrote some colleagues. "I was there to discuss bullying, and we did a role-playing exercise that went pretty well, but when I moved the discussion to cyberbullying, the room just lit up. I was kind of shocked it was such a hot topic. I talk to kids about this fairly often – but something is really happening out there. I would venture to say that, while face-to-face bullying is a big topic in elementary and middle school, the issue of cyberbullying is huge with high schoolers because they have become so much more connected and, Anne, I think what you have written about, this idea of constant access [see bullet #2 in "Related links" below], is what is feeding the flame."

In light of several current news stories about tragic cyberbullying cases, I thought you'd appreciate, as I did, the insights these students offer. Here, published with her permission, are Dr. Agatston's notes from the session (I inserted ellipses between students' responses to keep this post to a manageable length):

Question: How bad is cyberbullying at your school?

"It’s bad ["group consensus," Dr. Agatston wrote].... People can be meaner so much easier now.... It is way more powerful than regular bullying.... There are apps like Formspring[.me] that are easy to access (Facebook is blocked by the school district but Formspring is not), and people use it to anonymously say awful things about one another [Note from Agatston: "This started a heated debate about how some people are just asking for trouble if they participate in Formspring – so, the students said, why would you do that if you knew people could leave hurtful comments about you?" Note from me: Formspring use is a trend; it turned up in a tragic suicide story on Long Island, N.Y., this week. Back to the students:]

Problems with evidence gathering: "People are figuring out how to keep things more private so it is harder to have evidence of the bullying too. People don’t post things as publicly anymore.... You can’t just copy and paste IMs into a document because the administration will say that you could have altered it, or the other parent can say that, so now that cyberbullying is taking place through less visible ways, i.e. texting and IM Chat on Facebook, it is harder to prove." Agatston: "Some debate around ways that you could still have evidence. But the point, I think, is that kids don’t always think to save the chat on Facebook right away, and it is deleted after 24 hours, so evidence is lost, versus comments posted on a wall."

Do you see cyberbullying incidents as just happening all of a sudden, or are they reactions to things that happen in ongoing relationships and between peer groups?

"It's both.... Some start spontaneously online, and some are reactions from relationships among peers at school." [Agatston: "But the consensus of the group was that more of the cyberbullying incidents happened in reaction to things that were happening at school."]

Is there any single best way to deal with a cyberbullying incident from your perspective? What advice for teachers and school administrators on how to handle one? Or is each case pretty different? [Agatston: "These questions led to very lively discussion/debate."]

"It depends on the situation.... Schools should not get involved.... You should try to resolve it yourself.... If that doesn’t work you talk to your parents.... Schools should be the third/last option...." [Agatston: "Much agreement to this statement." Me: This tracks with Project Tomorrow's Speak Up Survey of US students and findings of the Youth Voice Project study I wrote about here.]

Responding to bullies (or not): "You have to act like it doesn’t bother you even though it does.... [Agatston: "One student shared how talking to his parents helped him."]... You have to tell your friends not to respond. It really does make things worse. And then you have now put yourself in a position where you look bad, too, because you said things back. That’s why a lot of kids don’t tell – because they have said bad things back, and so they can’t prove they didn’t do anything wrong, that it was one-sided.... It is harder to deal with cyberbullying than face-to-face bullying. You can stand up to someone face-to-face, and they will back off. If you stand up to someone online, it just escalates things.... You can respond if you think through a thoughtful response, but most kids just react, and that makes it worse."

Could you give examples of how you’ve helped peers work out cyberbullying-related problems?

"Told them to talk to their parents.... Told them not to respond and stay calm...."

Do you think the school should intervene with off-campus cyber-bullying that disrupts school?

"No. [Agatston: "A lot of agreement, here."] It doesn’t really help. Our administrators did a mediation with some girls who were cyberbullying another student. It just got worse. They became more secretive.... [See Rosalind Wiseman's advice to administrators in dealing with socially aggressive students here.] There is not a lot they can do unless you have a copy/clear evidence.... Going to a counselor is better than going to an administrator."

Do you share with adults the negative things you see or experience online?

"No.... Only parents. [Agatston: "Why not?"] If you have responded, it escalates things and you can get blamed. That’s why people don’t tell...."

Do you have any suggestions for prevention of cyberbullying?

"We got these books that went home [they're referring to the Federal Trade Commission's Net Cetera booklet that schools can order for free] – that was a joke; most of the kids flipped through them and threw them in the trash.... Actually, I think some of the students learned something from them – but they didn’t take them home to their parents, which is what they were supposed to do.... Yeah, because their parents would learn some things they were up to and they wouldn’t want them to know. [Agatston: "FYI, this was very funny to me because I was the one who worked with the FTC to get the Net Cetera books sent home with every parent in our district. We knew it was risky sending them home with high school kids, so obviously they never made it home to the parents, but I was intrigued to learn that some kids were reading the information for themselves! Elementary copies made it home and middle school mostly handed out during parent-teacher conference week."]... Assemblies are not effective. [Agatston: "Some debate on this – it depends on the speaker; small group discussions are better than big assemblies, where everyone tunes out – don’t want to be lectured."]... Students need to hear from real people and how it affected them.... It is easier to be a positive defender through technology than it is [to defend peers] face-to-face. "

If you lose access to technology how do you feel?

"Depressed.... Sad.... Angry.... Disconnected.... Isolated.... Lonely.... Lost."

Agatston's conclusions

"The students who participated in this discussion were clearly concerned about online bullying as well as the escalation of conflict through the use of technology. Undoubtedly, some bullying behavior erupts spontaneously online, but the majority of what youth are dealing with is a continuation and escalation of bullying and conflict that occurs when they're connected by social media and the mobile Web all the time. It is discouraging to see that this group of youth leaders does not see adults at school as helpful resources when online bullying and conflict occur. But most do seem willing to go to their parents if they're unable to resolve issues on their own, and a few are willing to approach a school counselor.

"It was helpful to hear their suggestion that prevention activities involving discussions about real cyberbullying situations are a good method for addressing cyberbullying. It's clear students also need tips on 1) how to avoid escalation of conflict online and 2) how to disengage from the social drama of their peer group. While bullying prevention that addresses online behavior is critical, this discussion with some high school student leaders suggests a need to update conflict-resolution training to address online conflict."

Related links

  • A just-released study of nearly 12,000 US students in grades 5-12 at 25 schools in 12 states across the country: the Youth Voice Project (summarized and linked to here) – offering important insights into bullying victims' own views on what causes bullying, how it affects them, and what does and doesn't work in dealing with it.
  • "'Recombinant art' & life?: Parenting & the digital drama overload"
  • "Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids"
  • "Clicks & cliques: *Really* meaty advice for parents on cyberbullying"
  • "Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole-school response is key"

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  • Tuesday, March 30, 2010

    9 charged in MA school bullying case

    The felony charges against nine students at South Hadley High School – including stalking, criminal harassment, violating civil rights causing bodily harm, disturbing a school assembly, and statutory rape – follow the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in January, the Boston Globe reports. Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said that the bullying was known to most of the student body and that "certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death," according to the Boston Herald. She added that, in reviewing the investigation, her office did consider whether school actions or failure to act amounted to criminal behavior but concluded they did not. "A lack of understanding of harassment associated with teen dating relationships seems to have been prevalent at South Hadley High School. That, in turn, brought an inconsistent interpretation in enforcement in the school’s code of conduct when incidents were observed and reported." The DA said Phoebe's mother spoke to "at least two school staff members" about the harassment her daughter experienced. In an editorial, the Boston Globe said the charges "mark a new seriousness about bullying," and the state legislature has been working hard on a new anti-bullying bill that would provide school administrators with clear direction on how to handle (see my post last week). The New York Times reports that "41 other states have anti-bullying laws of varying strength." [See also "Suicide in South Hadley" at Slate.]

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    Friday, March 26, 2010

    Empathy training gains ground in schools

    Used to be, if a student behaved badly s/he was sent to the office. Now, at Public School 114 in the South Bronx, a teacher sits down with students and finds out what's wrong. P.S. 114's principal told the New York Times that the school's had workshops run by David Levine, author of Teaching Empathy, since 2006 and has seen the number of fights drop from 1-3 a week to "fewer than three a month." The Times published this story a while ago, but I hope this growth trend is continuing. It's ever more important in the current highly charged climate (see below).

    The Times says similar workshops are being held in the high-end community of Scarsdale, N.Y., where one parent feels parents should be attending them too! Eighteen states "require programs to foster core values such as empathy, respect, responsibility and integrity." One such state is California, and "Los Angeles is spending nearly $1 million on a nationally known program for its 147 middle schools called Second Step that teaches impulse control, anger management, and problem solving as well as empathy. The Times gives other examples but adds that some people are questioning "whether such attempts at social engineering are appropriate for the classroom or should remain the purview of parents" and extracurricular programs (and whether there's even enough to teach academics in school). I can understand the question, but all this isn't just addressing "Mean Girls" – it's also addressing cyberbullying. I wonder if these programs are folding online behavior into the discussion. It should be there! If kids don't distinguish much between online and offline, why address social cruelty in one "place" and not the other? I think the need for other-awareness and perspective taking in all aspects of our lives (not just children's) is increasing as – enabled by digital media – the world crowds in on all of us more and more. But what do you think? Feel free to email me via anne[at]netfamilynews.org, comment below, or join the discussion at ConnectSafely.

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    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    Cyberbullying & the dark side of 'flash mobs'

    There's something Dark-Ages about Philadelphia's flash mobs – more like the digitally assisted Paris riots of 2005 than the "impromptu pillow fights in New York," as described in today's New York Times, the train-station group dancing in Europe (great example on YouTube here), and the giant, lighthearted Dupont Circle snowball fight I witnessed while stuck in snowbound Washington last month. Philadelphia's have "taken a more aggressive and raucous turn here as hundreds of teenagers have been converging downtown for a ritual that is part bullying, part running of the bulls: sprinting down the block, the teenagers sometimes pause to brawl with one another, assault pedestrians or vandalize property." City officials are considering a curfew, holding parents legally responsible for their kids' behavior, and other measures to get the situation under control the Times adds. Not everyone calls the seemingly spontaneous violence in Philly "flash mobs," and some sources the Times cites say it's due to fewer jobs for youth in a touch economy and "a decline in state money for youth violence prevention programs."

    Whatever, this is, it isn't happening in a vacuum. There seems to be an increasingly uncivil, angry tinge to exchanges between people who disagree and members of opposing political parties on Capitol Hill, the airwaves, and online. Is it possible that all these adults publicly modeling disrespectful, degrading behavior are creating a new, very destructive social norm? Could cyberbullying in schools and teens' destructive behavior on city streets have something to do with that? I think so. Experts rightfully alert us to the sexually toxic culture our children are growing up in; they're also growing up in a behaviorally toxic culture and media environment. Media and technology can make mobs grow fast, but they don't create the underlying attitudes. All of which points to the critical and growing need for education in good citizenship, online and offline, and new media literacy (critical thinking not just about content, texts, and comments being consumed or downloaded, but also sent out, posted, produced, and uploaded). [See also "Social norming: So key to online safety."]

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    Wednesday, March 24, 2010

    MA's hard-fought anti-bullying bill

    Both houses of the Massachusetts legislature have voted unanimously to approve anti-bullying legislation that mandates training for teachers and requires them to report incidents to principals," MassLive.com reports. The legislation also "requires principals to investigate bullying incidents, use appropriate discipline if necessary, notify parents on both sides of the incident, and report to police and prosecutors if a crime is thought to be involved." The legislation follows two young people's tragic suicides in the past year, most recently that of Phoebe Prince, 15, reportedly after being bullied at school and online, and last April that of Carl L. Walker-Hoover, 11, "after what his mother said was continual bullying by classmates," MassLive said. The bill will House and the Senate are expected to create a committee to develop a compromise of the bills approved in each branch. The legislation will now go into committee, where a compromise bill will be hammered out. That will go to each house for a final yes vote before going to the governor for signing.

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    Wednesday, March 17, 2010

    Key US court decision on bullying & school

    This may be a big step forward in US anti-bullying efforts: A recent federal court decision in Michigan sent "a clear message to schools that inaction, or even a simple unwise reaction, is not enough when it comes to dealing with bullies," author and cyberbullying researcher Justin Patchin blogs. The court ordered a Michigan school district to pay $800,000 "to a student who claimed the school did not do enough to protect him from years of bullying," according to the Detroit Free Press. The verdict "puts districts on notice that it's not enough to stop a student from bullying another." Dane Patterson, the victim in the Michigan case, "was in middle school when the bullying began as simple name calling and verbal harassment. It escalated in high school and included being pushed into lockers and at least one incident in 10th grade where he was sexually harassed," Patchin relates. It's not that his school didn't do anything at all about this, it just didn't change a thing. The occasional disciplinary action accomplished nothing, apparently. Patchin cites court records saying that, at one point, a teacher even joined the bullying by asking Dane in front of an entire class how it felt to be hit by a girl. "This is almost unbelievable," Patchin writes. I agree. He goes on to write about what does help, and I've written about it too (see this, but I have to be repetitive because this is so relevant, here: "Because a bully's success depends heavily on context, attempts to prevent bullying should concentrate primarily on changing the context rather than directly addressing the victim's or the bully's behavior," wrote Yale University psychologist Alan Yazdin in Slate.

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    Friday, March 12, 2010

    More evidence student anti-gay bullying is rampant

    More than half of self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) 11-to-22-year-olds surveyed said they'd been cyberbullied in the past 30 days, Futurity.org reports. The study, by Iowa State University researchers Warren Blumenfeld and Robyn Cooper, "appears in the LGBT-themed issue of the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, being released March 15," Futurity adds. It was an online survey of "444 junior high, high school, and college students between the ages of 11 and 22–including 350 self-identified non-heterosexual subjects" (here's an audio interview at CNET by ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid with Dr. Blumenfield). An earlier study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and Harris Interactive I blogged about found that LGBT youth are "up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers." I have to repeat the profound words of New York Times columnist Charles Blow after two children's suicides last year which reportedly involved anti-gay bullying: "Children can’t see their budding lives through the long lens of wisdom - the wisdom that benefits from years passed, hurdles overcome, strength summoned, resilience realized, selves discovered and accepted, hearts broken but mended and love experienced in the fullest, truest majesty that the word deserves. For them, the weight of ridicule and ostracism can feel crushing and without the possibility of reprieve." [See also my blog post "Cyberbullying better defined."]

    Meanwhile, preliminary results of another bullying project of researchers at the University of Ottawa and McMaster University show "that bullying can produce signs of stress, cognitive deficits and mental-health problems," the Toronto Globe & Mail reports. Lead researcher Tracy Vaillancourt said her team knows brains under bullying conditions are functionally different (act differently) but doesn't yet know if there's a structural difference, and to find out they'll do brain scanning of 70 victims they've been following for five years. Vaillancourt "says she hopes her work will legitimize the plight of children who are bullied, and encourage parents, teachers and school boards to take the problem more seriously."

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    Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    Students on bullying: Important study

    Having someone, especially a peer, really listen and be there for them seems to help bullying victims more than anything, according to students themselves. A new study of nearly 12,000 US students in grades 5-12 offers important insights into bullying victims' own views on what causes bullying, how it affects them, and what does and doesn't work in dealing with it. The students, surveyed by the Youth Voice Project, represent 25 schools in 12 states across the US.

    The Project's authors, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, PhD, write that about a fifth of respondents (22%) reported regular victimization (two or more times a month), and that victimization was broken down this way: Of those 22%, 46% characterized the harassment as mild ("bothered me only a little"); 36% moderate ("bothered me quite a bit"); 11% severe ("I had or have trouble eating, sleeping, or enjoying myself because of what happened to me"); and 7% very severe ("I felt or feel unsafe and threatened because of what happened to me"). So the study extrapolated that 13% of the US's student population, or about 7 million students, are experiencing moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment by peers.

    Who's being victimized: Middle school needs particular attention, since "the majority of traumatized students are in grades 6-8." Other characteristics: 54% are female, 42% male; about 6% of "traumatized students" (being moderately-to-very-severely mistreated) reported receiving special education assistance, and 10% "reported having some form of a physical disability." Ethnicity: The majority of "traumatized students" (moderate-to-very severe) described themselves as White, followed by Hispanic American and then Multi-Racial; 32% reported eligibility for free or reduced lunch; 9% of them had immigrated to the US within the past two years.

    What bullies focus on: Look at what the results say about the importance of teaching tolerance, empathy, perspective-taking: "Looks" was the focus of 55% of moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment and "Body Shape" of 37%. The next highest focus was "Race," at 16%; "Sexual Orientation" and "Family Income" came next at 14% and 13%, respectively.

    Make it safe to report: A higher percentage than I usually see (42%) say they report their moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment to an adult at school, but that's still less than half. So the authors write that it's "important to identify safe ways for students to communicate with adults at school about their negative peer interactions."

    What helps most: Being heard and acknowledged seems to help victims more than most responses by both adults and peers. Adults first: The top three responses (to victims) "likely to lead to things getting better for the student than to things getting worse" were "listened to me," "gave me advice," and "checked in with me afterwards to see if the behavior stopped." Coming in at a noticeably distant 4th, interestingly, was "kept up increased adult supervision for some time." As for responses from peers (including friends), the top three were "Spent time with me," "Talked to me," and "Helped me get away." The authors add that "positive peer actions were strikingly more likely to be rated more helpful than were positive self actions or positive adult actions."

    There are so many more really substantive insights in this report (and future ones Davis and Nixon are planning) that I truly recommend that you read it. But here are three key takeaways:

    1. What victims are often advised - e.g., "tell the person how you feel," "walk away," "tell the person to stop," "pretend it doesn't bother you" – "made things worse much more often than they made things better."
    2. The effectiveness of adult interventions depends a lot "on context, school culture, climate, as well as the way in which each intervention is carried out."
    3. "Our students report that asking for and getting emotional support and a sense of connection has helped them the most among all the strategies we compared."

    Related links

  • "Clicks & cliques: Really meaty advice for parents on cyberbullying"
  • "Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole-school response is key"
  • "Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids": What many bullying and cyberbullying cases seem to have in common is "the 24/7, non-stop nature of the harassment the teens faced – the tech-enabled constant drama of school life turning into 24/7 cruelty.... [They] indicate an urgent need for all of us to help our children come up for air, to maintain some perspective about the 'alternate reality' of school life, especially in the middle-school years."
  • "Social norming: So key to online safety"
  • "Bystanders can help when bullying happens"

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  • Monday, March 01, 2010

    Helping kids gain from adversity: Inspiration for parents, teachers

    I just listened to Aimee Mullins's just-posted TED Talk of last October and thought to myself anyone who loves teaching, young people, and the power of the human spirit would resonate with this. Aimee is an actor, athlete, and model (full bio here) who has not merely overcome and pushed through the adversity of being born without fibula, or shin bones, but used that adversity to find and bring out her in-born potential. She talks about not long ago bumping into the OB-GYN who delivered her in her home town in Pennsylvania and hearing about how, because of her career, he tells his medical students, "In my experience, unless repeatedly told otherwise and if given just a modicum of support, if left to their own devices, a child will achieve." She adds, "If we can change the current paradigm from one of achieving normalcy to achieving ability or potency, we can release the power of so many more children and invite them to engage their rare and valuable abilities with the community" – the abilities each child has. She later adds something I think my friend Lenore Skenazy over at FreeRangeKids.com, kindred spirit Tanya Byron in the UK, and a whole lot of other parents would appreciate: "Our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity but preparing them to meet it well."

    Mullins says something important about technology and social networking too (which I feel would resonate with the authors of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out). After reading the dictionary definition of "disability" to the audience, she said: "Our language hasn't allowed us to get caught up with the changes in our society, many of which have been brought about by technology." She lists some examples, among them "social-networking platforms [which] allow people to self-identify, to claim their own description of themselves so they can go align with global groups of their own choosing." Think about this in light of bullying and cyberbullying, where kids identified by others as "handicapped" in any way are often the targets. Social media can help remove or at least delay the labels bullies exploit, giving children some much-needed space and peace for identity exploration. Mullins puts it so eloquently: "Maybe technology is revealing more clearly to us now what has always been a truth: that everyone has something rare and powerful to offer our society and that the human ability to adapt is our greatest asset." Don't miss the talk, including the lines Mullins quotes from a 14th Persian poet at the end.

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    Thursday, February 18, 2010

    Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole-school response is key

    Cyberbullying is a serious problem that, according to research, is the most common online risk for young people, affecting about a third of US 13-to-17-year-olds, and has led to some tragic student suicides. Schools and courts are struggling to figure out how to deal with student behavior that occurs off school grounds but can have such a disruptive, sometimes destructive, effect on school.

    All the discussion about the legal and First Amendment issues seems to be missing a key factor that points to how to handle cyberbullying: the media environment with which all these incidents are directly associated. The Internet, especially to youth, is now a) collegial or social/behavioral in nature and b) mirrors "real world" life and conditions – it's not something in addition to student or school life. Bullying online is not a whole new problem for schools and courts to deal with. It's a reflection of student relationships, and the bullying's context is largely the life of the school community, not the Internet (or cellphones or any other devices).

    Cyberbullying prevention/intervention take a village too

    "Because a bully's success depends heavily on context" – write Yale psychology professor Alan Yazdin and his co-author Carlo Rotella at Boston College in "Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village" at Slate.com – "attempts to prevent bullying should concentrate primarily on changing the context rather than directly addressing the victim's or the bully's behavior." That, they add, involves "the entire school, including administration, teachers, and peers."

    Author and educator Rosalind Wiseman agrees. In a 55-min. podcast interview she gave fellow educator and author Annie Fox, Wiseman recently said that dealing with cyberbullying "really speaks to a school's culture of dignity....

    "Don't do a 45-minute assembly on cyberbullying," Wiseman said. "It's a waste of time. Have a faculty meeting, and then have a parent meeting, and tell the students this is what you're doing – not just a bullying assembly. Tell them 'we understand that this is about the whole culture of the school, and as part of that culture, you have to participate in this as well.'" Slightly tongue in cheek, Wiseman adds that this will increase "the chance of students believing you're not completely full of it."

    Quick fixes don't exist

    Schools will probably get plenty of eye-rolling and "whatever's" from the more socially aggressive students, but gradually things can turn around – particularly if there's disciplinary backup. [Note the word "backup": discipline is not the goal, but rather restoration of order – more on this below.] For example, when talking with a student suspected of having been the bully in an incident, the end of the conversation could go something like:

    "I know we're on the same page, here: You're a person of honor, so I'm taking you on your word that this won't happen again. But you need to be clear that, if you walk out of here and, as a result of this meeting, the life of the target in any way becomes more difficult, then we are in a whole different situation – a whole different level of the problem. You need to be clear that, if that happens, you're taking a very big chance."

    That conversation could also include the following. "I hope and expect that you'll be talking with your parents about this, because I'm going to be calling them within 24 hours." Wiseman tells teachers and administrators that of course the kids will talk to their parents, offering their own spin on the situation. "So it's very important to say to the parent, 'I wanted to include you from the beginning, that is why I talked with your child. I fully expected [him or her] to speak to you immediately and now I'm following up so we can work together and have this be a learning opportunity – a teachable moment – for your child."

    Turning incidents into 'teachable moments'

    Those words are crucial: "learning opportunity," "teachable moment." They are stepping stones on the way to building the school's "culture of dignity," as Wiseman put. Because it's merely logical that a one-time, sage-on-the-stage assembly will accomplish very little. It's also logical that involving all players and skill sets – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and counselors – creates the conditions for changing the school's culture (see this). The school is, in fact, creating a new social norm – as Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and an adviser to state legislators working on bullying-education legislation, told Emily Bazelon at Slate.com – where the whole school community looks down on dissing, flaming, mean gossiping, and other social cruelty, hopefully including students' parents. The Slate piece links to some great resources for school strategizing. For example, here's a sexting investigation protocol from the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use offering the spectrum of sexting causes and intentions enabling school staff to ask students intelligent questions.

    When an interdisciplinary group of us were working on that protocol, authored by Nancy Willard, it occurred to me that, because it lays out the spectrum of sexting's causes, it'll help school officials see why it's essential that schools not just reflexively hand off investigations to law enforcement (whose involvement some state laws require).

    The goal of any incident investigation

    "The immediate goal of the investigation is not discipline [and certainly not expediency] but rather support for the targeted student(s) [who may be experiencing psychological harm], and restoration of order. The ultimate goal is to create a learning opportunity for all involved. The learning opportunity should be on-the-spot, as well as school and community-wide, and focus on the areas of critical thinking, mindful decision-making, perspective-taking, and citizenship." That's a statement a couple of us worked up because we feel it's so important for everybody to understand that, in the social-media age, we can only change behavior – in schools and online communities – together, as "a village."

    Here's Part 1 of this 2-part series: "Clicks & cliques: Really meaty advice for parents on cyberbullying".

    Related links

  • In another Massachusetts incident, last week Boston-area police charged three students with identity theft reportedly for creating a fake Facebook profile and posting mean comments about a peer. In an editorial last Saturday (2/13), the Boston Globe applauded the police "for taking aggressive action against cyberbullying when so many others have failed to do so." There's the sad reality: that too often the "authority figure" taking over is the police. Law enforcement is only one piece of the multidisciplinary team that should be in place in schools and ready to step in when something comes up. The other essential roles are principal and counselor/psychologist.
  • "Cyberbullying better defined" – with links to two national studies showing that about one-third of teens
  • Finding of the Harvard Berkman Center's 2008 Internet Safety & Technical Task Force: "Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline" (p. 4 of Executive Summary)
  • The Fox-Wiseman podcast
  • ConnectSafely.org's Tips to Help Stop Cyberbullying

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  • Friday, February 12, 2010

    Clicks & cliques: *Really* meaty advice for parents on cyberbullying

    Annie Fox's recent 55-min. interview with fellow educator and author Rosalind Wiseman at FamilyConfidential.com is a must-listen for parents, educators – anyone who has anything to do with teens and digital media. It has a lot to say about working through tough situations like sexting or cyberbullying incidents with young people in a candid, respectful way and, in the process, helping them understand the rights and responsibilities of being human beings as well as technology users. It's such great stuff that I felt key points of this podcast should be searchable on the Web as text and got Annie's permission to quote and paraphrase at length (hopefully accurately!). Because it's a long podcast, I'm splitting this into two parts (which are still long – apologies, but they're important!) – this week's focus is parenting; next week's on school, adding more sources.

    Both Fox and Wiseman have new books out which I highly recommend: the third book of Fox's Middle School Confidential series for tweens, this one subtitled "What's Up With My Family?", and the re-release of Wiseman's best-selling Queen Bees & Wannabes with a new chapter on the role of technology in teen life. [Here's Fox's blog post about the interview.]

    Moral compasses needed for navigating cyberspace

    About a quarter of the way through the podcast, Wiseman talks about how she hears what many of us hear from teens: that people have always been mean to each other –cyberbullying isn't anything different from what we've dealt with in the past. So, they ask, what's the big deal?

    "The minute somebody says that," Wiseman says, "that is the minute when critically thinking people stop and say, 'Why?!' Because if it involves the degradation of other people – especially if it's done for the entertainment of other people like bystanders – then that is a problem, and that is a tradition that needs to be challenged immediately."

    Wiseman says to Fox that, when that comes up with teens, she tells them, "If you are going to be someone who has self-agency in the world, if you in your own way believe you have an obligation for yourself and others to live in the world with dignity, and that you have a moral compass, if you want that ability, then you have to be able to challenge the things that are 'normal' but are not right....

    "I think the role of adults," Wiseman adds, "is to pierce this bubble that all of this [mean behavior] is normal now. Children think it's happening so much that [they'll tell you] that they didn't think it was wrong, and it's our role to say, 'No, actually it's not ok, and you're completely in your right to be upset about it." When they say that, teens are reflecting a culture – both online and offline, at home and at school, involving adults as well as kids – in which there has been too much acceptance of flaming, dissing, gossiping about people we know and don't know – too much negative social norming that has got to be addressed (see this about the vital role of positive social norming).

    Wiseman's 'SEAL Strategy'

    So when teenagers are upset about something mean a peer has said or done to them online or offline, we can calmly help them think through what happened, how they feel about it, and what they're going to do about it. One approach, Wiseman's framework for that conversation, is what she calls the "SEAL strategy" – part of the "Owning Up" curriculum she uses to help educators teach students to "own up and take responsibility for unethical behavior." When doing this strategizing, parents and kids of course plug in their own situation and words. [Don't worry if the strategy seems to be about prepping for a confrontation between bully and victim if that's not what you and your child had in mind. The conversation itself is valuable. It's designed to help the child, if not completely take back control of the situation, at least mentally work her way out of victimization mode.]

    Prepping for the conversation

    But before we get to S-E-A-L – around 18 min. into the podcast – Rosalind talks about why it's so important for parents to handle this calmly and respectfully:

    "As a parent, what I want you to say to your child is [something like], 'I'm so sorry this happened to you; thank you SO much for coming and telling me' ... because your kid is taking a risk to tell you about this. Most of the time they think that going to an adult will make it worse [which is why research shows only 10% of teens report cyberbullying to their parents (see this)]. THEN you say, 'and together we're going to work on this, we are going to think through how we can do this so you can feel that you've got some control over a situation where your control has been taken away from you."

    And if we're lucky enough that they do come to us, Wiseman says, a lot of times we'll hear them say, "'I'm going to tell you, but you have to promise not to do or say anything about it.' That might seem to make sense [right then, when you so want to know what she's dealing with], so you may want to agree at first, but if your kid then tells you something you have to do something about, you have to break a promise.... So instead you say, 'I really can't make that promise. I'd love to, but we may have to find somebody who knows more about taking care of the problem than I do.... But what I will promise you is that if we do need to bring someone in, you will never be surprised by their involvement – you won't walk into a room and be surprised. I can promise that. We'll work this through together.' Because," Wiseman says, "you [the parent] taking over robs them of the control they need to have to be able to face the bully."

    S-E-A-L

    As you sit down with your child, "say, 'I'm going to give you a structure that's going to help you think through the really bad feelings in your stomach and put them into words for yourself before you go and talk to someone else,'" Wiseman says, "'because how many times have you had the experience where you're really, really mad at somebody and know exactly what you're going to say to the person, and then you get in front of the person and you totally lose your words? This is going to be a way for you to have a better chance of that not happening, so you can be calm and have as much control as possible in the situation.'"

  • S means you "stop and think when and where, now or later, publicly or privately" you will confront the person face-to-face (usually pretty short in public, longer in private). I think it's important to note, here, that Wiseman's saying the young person is doing this neither to be the bully's best friend nor to destroy somebody. "It's not a zero-sum game."

  • E is about how "you explain exactly what you don't like and exactly what you want." Not something vague like, "you're being mean to me," but "when you stole my password, you know I've had the same one since 6th grade and you used it to send an embarrassing message to my entire contact list making it look as if it was me. I hate that; it was beyond embarrassing to me." Then the teen explains exactly what she wants, regardless of whether or not the kid is likely to do it, something like: "I'm asking you to send a message to all those people saying you sent that other message, that it wasn't me. I'm going to be sending that message to everybody, but I'm asking you to have the courage and integrity to do it yourself." Wiseman explains that, in this confrontation, the targeted child is not asking to be treated with dignity, is not appealing to the bully's sympathy. She is being clear that dignity "is something I deserve because it's what everybody deserves."

  • A is really two As – for "affirm" and "acknowledge or admit ("some kids like 'acknowledge,' some 'admit'"). They're about rights and responsibilities. "The first A is to affirm your right and everybody's right to walk down the school hallway or be in this world without being treated like dirt." As for responsibilities, this parent-child conversation is providing your child some space in which she can ask herself, 'Is it possible that I contributed in some way to the dynamic that I'm now dealing with? What are my responsibilities to other people and have I respected those responsibilities?" Wiseman adds that this is sometimes the hard part for parents – asking their own child about her role in the situation, but it's essential, she says, if we want our kids to have the ability to put on the brakes the next time it happens. She feels this is particularly important with today's technologies because these days it's almost impossible not to have a role, not to be either target, perpetrator or bystander (see this Slate piece by Yale psychology professor Alan Kazdin about the power of the bystander). Cyberbullying situations are very fluid, usually hardwired to the school context, with bullies, victims, and bystanders frequently swapping hats in a 24-7, digitally-enabled school drama that makes it hard to get away and get perspective (see this).

  • L is "You either lock in or lock out the relationship or friendship with the person you confronted – or you take a vacation from it. With peers, you need to be able to go through the process of asking whether you want to be in this relationship or not and how you want to be in it. As a bystander, you can say to the bully I'm coming to you as a friend (lock in); it would've been easier to say nothing, but I'm saying this to you out of loyalty; as a friend I'm coming to you. To a bully, you might say, 'You've changed, you're blowing me off all the time, bossing me around, ridiculing me, whatever, and it's not getting better, so I need to lock out the friendship or I need to take a break.' [Wiseman reminds always to encourage them to put it in their own words. They just need this structure because this is very difficult to do.]

    Perspective-taking good for parents too

    "When your kid comes home and tells you something has happened, don't believe that what the child related is 100% truth and there is no other perspective," Wiseman says. "That is their truth. But it's also true that, in a conflict, human nature focuses on what has been done to it, not what it did to others. Two kids will have very different perspectives on what happened." She asks parents who have more than one child if, when something comes up, the two kids don't usually have a difference of opinion about what happened. Nah. ;-) "It's like that at school too. Each child has his own truth."

    So "if you go in there [into school], guns blazing, you may find out something more happened, and you're going to be very embarrassed. So it's incumbent upon you" to go in knowing there are other perspectives, say what you need to say, and "finish your story [for school administrators] with 'Is that accurate?' [Repeat: Make sure, after sharing what you heard from your child, you ask the school administrator or the other parents there: "Is that accurate?"] Then really listen." This can make the difference between amplifying the problem and helping to resolve it.

    But as important as your behavior is to the outcome for everybody, it's vitally important for your child, who's keenly aware of how you handle the situation. "You're teaching your child how you handle conflict," Wiseman says in the podcast. And Fox points out that "parents are leaders for their kids." She adds that, no matter how much technology is involved in the issue being worked out, "this is not a technology issue; ultimately, it's a parenting issue."

    3,000 text messages a month – hmm, might parents have something to do with it?

    Wiseman told Fox that her teen advisers say texting "is our primary way we communicate with each other. Yes, we use [social network sites], but texting is faster" (the average is 3,146 text messages a month for 13-to-17-year-olds, Nielsen reported this month). They also tell her that parental communication represents a not-insignificant part of those texts. One girl told Wiseman, "My parents are texting me ... from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed." The girl showed her one of those texts: "Honey, I'm going to the airport to pick up Grandma." Daughter texts back, "Mom, you're driving, stop texting me!" And as, Wiseman watches, the mom continues texting. Maybe, Fox suggests, we parents could check and see what behaviors we're modeling for our kids. Another girl told Wiseman: "My mom sends me pictures of people she finds dressed ridiculously," making snide comments about this or that piece of clothing. Calling this pre-adolescent behavior, Wiseman suggested: "We have to look in the mirror about these things.... We are part of this. It's not just teenagers [dissing others].... "

    It'll help, I so agree, "if we really tie [how we deal with their tech use] back to the root issues of how we must be with each other," as Wiseman put it. That, to me, is the core of the cyberbullying solution. "Kids are smart enough to be able to extrapolate, if we teach them the connections ... if we teach them that the way they use technology is just reflective of everything else that we expect of them."

    [Readers, everything above is much more compelling when you hear it coming from its sources, so do yourself a favor and listen to the podcast. Next week: behavior and technology at school.]

    Related links

  • "Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village" at Slate – by Yale professor of psychiatry and child psychology Alan Kazdin and Boston College professor Carlo Rotella
  • Annie Fox's Middle School Confidential: What's Up with My Family? ($9.99, 96 pp.) is comfort food for the mind – a middle-schooler's highly social, overloaded, hormone-challenged, technology-tethered mind. When my 12-year-old saw the pdf review version on my laptop screen when we were sitting on a plane together last fall, it was his idea – not mine – to read through the whole book then and there. That says it all, think! This is solid, respectful, caring advice for kids.
  • Video: CBS News's Katie Couric interviews Wiseman about children's privacy: "If we don't value their privacy, we're sending a message about respect." Ok if we monitor them surreptitiously? "Sure, but what if you find something you need to talk to them about? It's taking a risk that if you get caught, the kid can focus on the "violation of privacy" instead of on the content of their behavior – they go into self-righteous mode when the focus should be on their risky behavior.
  • Couric and Wiseman talk about sexting.
  • Annie Fox's podcast with Rachel Simmons, whose most recent book is The Curse of the Good Girl (here's Simmons's site)
  • "A different sort of back-to-school tip: Kindness"
  • The last time I wrote about Fox and Wiseman: "Sexting: New study & the 'Truth or Dare' scenario"

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  • Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids

    How do we help our children maintain some detachment from the drama, sometimes cruelty, of school life? This, I think, is the central question of online safety, if not child development, in the digital age. It has just become national news that 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., and very recently of western Ireland, committed suicide January 14 because of fellow students' social cruelty online and offline, in and out of school, according to ABC News and the Boston Herald. Last month the country learned of 13-year-old Florida student Hope Witsell's suicide last fall (I posted about that in ConnectSafely's forum here).

    Detachment from 'The Drama'

    Each of these cases is highly individual, but what they all seem to have in common is the 24/7, non-stop nature of the harassment the teens faced – the tech-enabled constant drama of school life turning into 24/7 cruelty. Phoebe's and Hope's tragedies indicate an urgent need for all of us to help our children come up for air, to maintain some perspective about the "alternate reality" of school life, especially in the middle-school years.

    Technology mustn't be the focus of either blame or solution development because it's not the source of the problem; social cruelty is. But technology – if not used with a sense of perspective or balance – can "tether" a child to the cruel behavior. I get that word from MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, who refers to today's communications tools (the social Web, cellphones, etc.) as "tethering technologies" in her paper about "The Tethered Self." She discusses how they remove us from our physical surroundings. I think their constant use can also affect our sense of context psychologically too – everybody's, not just kids', but adolescents have a lot to deal with just developmentally, so perspective can be extra helpful to them.

    We hear a lot that we need to think about the implications of giving our children mobile devices that make them as available to their peers as they are to us. But let's look at one of the implications: Kids' and their peers' moment-by-moment mood changes, blow-by-blow gossip, and good and bad behavior mutually accessible as long as their communications devices are on. In other words, constant drama – often heightened by kids who enjoy fueling it, whether for entertainment, as a prank, or out of malice.

    How we can help

    What we don't hear enough is that there are ways we – parents, school personnel, police, and policymakers – can help our kids and teens. We can help them...

  • Get perspective and maybe a little mental detachment from peers as well as "the drama"
  • Do the identity exploration that's a key task of adolescence as themselves," as individuals, and not only or always in relation to their peers
  • Have a little time for reflection
  • Realize the importance of self-respect and know they have our respect.

    In other words, we can help them to be able – when needed – psychologically to disengage just so they can think straight and actually see that their life is not that drama at school or online, and they are never the person any bullies could ever make them out to be.

    Tampa-area schools are discussing (I think much-needed) parent-notification rules, the Tampa Tribune reports and Massachusetts lawmakers are "stepping up efforts to pass an anti-bullying measure," the Boston Globe reports. These are important pieces of the puzzle, but I hope that school officials, legislators, and parents 1) don't create policy and law based solely on the worst tragedies and 2) do help children learn how to maintain perspective, self-respect, and respect for others amid the info and behavioral overload of the digital age. This is the protective nature of social-media literacy and citizenship – the new online safety.

    Related links

  • Whether or not they all make sense for your family, at least some of Marian Merritt's 7 household tech-use rules (at the bottom of her post) can help parents help kids keep "The Drama" under control. Merritt, Norton's Internet Safety Advocate, is blogging about the Kaiser Family Foundation study on US 8-to-18-year-olds' media use – I posted about it here.
  • Youth (and parent) mentor Annie Fox helps a girl having suicidal thoughts: "For teens: What can I do about these rumors?"
  • How the social Web helps stop suicide (in The Daily Beast) and an example of suicide averted, thanks to social networking
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline says peers are the best source of referrals to the Lifeline, usually via social network sites, especially MySpace – not a toll-free phone number – but that number is 1-800-273-TALK. The Lifeline coordinates the work of more than 100 toll-free help centers around the US, getting calls and cases to the center nearest the person needing help, and help not just for suicidal crisis, but depression, domestic violence, and all sorts of needs (more people need to know about that).
  • "Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth"
  • ConnectSafely.org's "Tips to Help Stop Sexting"

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  • Monday, January 25, 2010

    Help with cyberbullying on YouTube

    Say you're 15, care greatly about a particular environmental cause, and use your YouTube account to vlog (video blog) about it in an earnest way that triggers some really nasty comments on your page. What do you do? YouTube has some tips it blogged with just that scenario in mind, linking to the National Crime Prevention Council's new anti-cyberbullying campaign, Circle of Respect, which came up with the scenario and illustrates it here. The tips are good, basically saying: 1) Delete the comments and consider blocking the user; 2) Report hate speech (comments on race, gender, or disability); 3) If physical threats (which are illegal) are involved, talk with a trusted adult about whether to call 911; and last but far from least: 4) Be respectful yourself – treating others with civility is protective. I base that on a finding published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine in 2007: that aggressive behavior online more than doubles the aggressor's risk of victimization. For a much more thorough guide to parenting in the video age, see kid-tech expert Warren Buckleitner in the New York Times. [Meanwhile, the Italian government is getting considerable flak for proposing new Web-video rules that would require users to get clearance from the Communications Ministry before uploading their videos to sites like YouTube, The Standard reports.]

    Related links

  • Our "Top 10 Safety Tips for Video-Sharing" at ConnectSafely.org
  • "Parents face a new frontier: Setting electronic limits," with some individual family strategies in the Washington Post
  • Why "soft power" parenting works better here in NetFamilyNews.

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  • Friday, January 22, 2010

    28 students suspended for cyberbullying

    A Seattle middle school recently suspended 28 students for involvement in a Facebook page that put down another student, the Seattle Times reported. I'm not sure what suspension does to stop cyberbullying, but I was glad to read that 1) the hate page probably wasn't on Facebook for more than 24 hours and that 2) "school staff talked with [the suspended students] and their parents, and the principal plans to hold assemblies for students and meetings for parents to discuss appropriate and safe Internet use." Here's UPI's coverage. [See also "School cyberbully wins free-speech case" and "The power of play: Cyberbullying solution?".]

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    Thursday, December 17, 2009

    School cyberbully wins free-speech case

    This week the Los Angeles Times told the story of an 8th grader who walked into her school counselor's office in tears, saying she just couldn't go to class. Another girl had posted a humiliating video about her in a video site and the targeted girl was sure half the school's 8th-grade class had seen it. After much discussion among school, district, and district lawyers, the school suspended the video's producer for a couple of days. She and her dad, a lawyer, sued the school for violating her free-speech rights, and a federal court in L.A. decided in favor of the degrading video's producer, saying that, by suspending the girl for her video, "the school had gone too far," the L.A. Times reports. In his 60-page opinion, US District Judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote that, "to allow the School to cast this wide a net and suspend a student simply because another student takes offense to their speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school’s activities, runs afoul of Tinker" (referring to the widely cited 1969 case Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District). This was "a disturbing decision in a cyberbullying case," says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use, because the court placed too much emphasis on whether evidence could predict physical harm and substantial disruption, was dismissive of emotional harm to students, and failed to consider the video's impact on the victim's own "educational performance and right to feel secure at school, and thus her right to receive an education." She argues that, "in addition to the substantial disruption test, Tinker held that a school may regulate student speech that interferes with the 'the school’s work or [collides] with the rights of other students to be secure and be let alone'."

    I couldn't agree more. Children who are being bullied online and offline need to be able to seek relief at school, especially when - for some children – school is the first line of defense. And schools have got to be able to intervene in cases where individual students are experiencing psychological as well as physical harm. But Willard says it much better than I can: "Research has consistently revealed that these incidents can be exceptionally emotionally traumatic and frequently are related to school failure, school avoidance, violence at school - and sometimes youth suicide. To protect the well-being of youth, school officials must have the authority to respond to these incidents and, if justified, remove offending students from school for a period of time." If we can get to that point, then maybe the discussion about cyberbullying can be less about avoiding litigation and more about helping kids. Here's Willard's analysis of J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District, "There is No Constitutional Right to Cyberbully."

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    Thursday, December 03, 2009

    New study on 'digital abuse' & youth

    New national sexting numbers that have sparked headlines all over the Web about higher-than-ever sexting rates among US youth actually show that 90% have not sent naked photos to someone. Sammy, a San Francisco 16-year-old cited in the Associated Press's coverage and one of the 10% of youth who have sent "sexts," told the AP that he probably wouldn't do it again knowing that sexting could bring felony charges. I think all the above says a lot about the importance of 1) educating teens about this (see ConnectSafely's tips for starters ) 2) reporting surveys accurately, and 3) applying some critical thinking to breaking news. [In CNET's coverage, ConnectSafely.org co-director Larry Magid points out that the MTV/AP study of 1,247 14-to-24-year-olds "confirms what many Internet safety experts have been saying for the past several months: Young people are far more likely to experience problems online from their peers or from their own indiscretions than from adult predators."]

    Here are some highlights from the AP/MTV survey:

  • The 50% figure you may've seen in some headlines refers to the percentage of youth who have experienced "digital abuse from the mild to the extreme," including spreading lies, violation of trust, and digital disrespect.
  • 30% have been involved in some type of naked photo-sharing.
  • 10% have actually sent sexting photos, females more than males (13% vs. 9%, respectively)
  • 45% of sexually active youth report being involved with sexting.
  • Young people have complex views of sexting, calling it everything from "hot" and "trusting" to "uncomfortable" and "slutty," and those who don't engage in it calling it "gross," "uncomfortable," and "stupid."
  • In the "dating abuse" area, 22% say their significant others check up on them too often (see other interesting data in that category).
  • 76% say digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age
  • 51% "say they have thought about the idea that things they post online could come back to hurt them"; and only 25% have given at least some thought to the idea that what they post could get them in trouble with the police and 28% in trouble at school.

    There's lots more interesting data, so please click to the pdf summary at AThinLine.org for more.

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  • Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    'How to bully-proof yourself on Facebook'

    Here are some great social-networking-specific tips from Facebook's director of public policy, Europe. There's just one key point missing, I think, because of the 2007 finding that "youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization" (see "Digital risk, digital citizenship" and Archives of Pediatrics). That essential tip is: "Be nice." Kindness is contagious too (check out the last three anti-cyberbullying tips at ConnectSafely.org). [See also "A different sort of back-to-school tip: Kindness."]

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    Peer mentors fight bullying

    From the Good Idea Department: In a program called "CyberMentors," London-based nonprofit Beatbullying is training students 18-25 to mentor younger students online in dealing with bullying, the BBC reports. "Under the scheme, senior cyber-mentors, who all come from colleges or universities, support the work of younger cyber-mentors" right in social network sites. The BBC doesn't say, but presumably there will be a marketing campaign that lets young people know how they can contact mentors through MySpace or Facebook. CompuTeach.co.uk cites figures from the UK's Anti-Bullying Alliance showing that "around 20% of schoolchildren aged 10-11 have been bullied on the Internet within the last year." Here's a review of the concept from US cyberbullying expert and professor Sameer Hinduja, who also blogged recently about how to help youth suffering from Asperger's Syndrome in cyberbullying situations. [See also Professor Hinduja's amazing collection of resources on cyberbullying; "'Cyberbullying' better defined"; "A new, holistic anti-bullying program for schools"; and, for more on peer mentoring, my "Social norming & digital citizenship."]

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    Thursday, October 01, 2009

    Anti-gay harassment tougher on middle-schoolers

    "For many gay youth, middle school is more survival than learning – one parent of a gay teenager I spent time with likened her child’s middle school to a 'war zone',” wrote Benoit Denizet-Lewis in the New York Times Magazine. He told of a middle school counselor in Maine who says anti-gay language is embedded in middle-school culture, and – because more LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] students are coming out in younger ages – schools are "playing catchup to try to keep them safe." These observations were borne out in a new study from GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) showing that middle-school-level "LGBT students are significantly more likely to face hostile school climates than high school LGBT students, yet have less access to school resources and support." Some key numbers from the study: 91% of LGBT middle-school students and 86% of high school students surveyed had been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation; 59% of LGBT m.s. students and 43% of h.s. students had experienced physical harassment because of their sexual orientation; and 39% of LGBT m.s. students and 20% of h.s. students had been assaulted in school because of their sexual orientation. See also "When Teenagers Question Their Sexuality", a Q&A in the Times's "Consults" blog" with psychiatrist Jeffrey Fishberger of the Trevor Project, which runs a national 24-hour crisis and suicide hot line for LGBT youth.

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    Friday, September 18, 2009

    Why anti-bullying laws aren't working

    Forty-four states have laws against bullying, but they're largely ineffective, according to an article in Education Week. The tragic suicide of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera in the Atlanta area last spring (see this) was a prime illustration, since "Georgia's law has one of the largest gaps between what it requires of [school] districts and the tools it gives them for meeting those requirements," the article reports. "The state doesn't collect data specifically on bullying occurrences, despite legislation that promises to strip state funding from schools failing to take action after three instances involving a bully." One of the key problems, says Tucson, Ariz., attorney Michael Tully in his blog, is that the laws "have no teeth." They require schools " to adopt bullying prevention policies, but do not include any remedy for students and parents should the school not comply," Tully later wrote in an email to me. And in his blog, he wrote, "Until these statutes include a private cause of action — something schools will fight against vigorously [lobbying to keep it out of laws] — bullying prevention efforts will continue to be a 'paper tiger'." As for state laws concerning cyberbullying, here's the picture from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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    Tuesday, August 25, 2009

    Overreaction to cyberbullying not good: L.A. Times

    This is interesting, in light of the recent "skank blogger" story in New York: "Overreaction to online harassment," an editorial in the Los Angeles Times. It makes a similar argument about prosecutors' "remedies" for bad behavior online that I've made for bad online behavior in school communities: that the solution is not some sort of new add-on to the curriculum or school life (or students' "real lives") called "online safety instruction" any more than the problem is just technology or the online environment. The Times argues that "if something's a crime in the physical world, it should be in the virtual one too. The problem is with prosecutors who think that transgressions are automatically magnified if they occur in cyberspace." I think this is a misconception so many adults have – that the problem is technology (that they don't fully understand), not behavior, as abhorrent as the behavior sometimes is. Technology can affect the equation (see "The Net effect"), but it's not the whole issue. The Times also refers to bad federal legislation that members of Congress introduce "when state law doesn't produce the results they seek," such as some pretty extreme cyberbullying cases in Missouri (see my recent post on the latest).

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    Monday, August 24, 2009

    'Skank blogger' story revealing in more ways than 1

    The story of the "Skanks of New York" blogger illustrates how "unreliable" online anonymity can be for anyone considering hiding behind it to harass or defame others. "A Manhattan Supreme Court judge forced Google to unmask [the blogger Rosemary] Port, rejecting Port's claim that blogs 'serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting' and shouldn't be regarded as fact," the New York Daily News reports. Judge Joan Madden wrote that "the protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions," DigitalJournal.com reports. Online privacy groups are worried about the precedent his decision may set, the Seattle Post Intelligencer reports, pointing to the view of the Electronic Freedom Foundation that using a court "as your personal private investigator to out anonymous critics is a dangerous precedent to set." Port told the Daily News that "she's furious at Google for revealing her identity, so much so that she plans to file a $15 million federal lawsuit against the Web giant." That you can't "count on" anonymity is a good family discussion to have, because it doesn't always take a court order to unveil a meanie or cyberbully, especially if blogger and victim are minors and in the same community, like a school, when administrators consider the behavior disruptive. [See also "Social intelligence & youth" and "Online harassment: From one who's been there."]

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    First UK teen to be jailed for cyberbullying

    After pleading guilty to harassment,18-year-old Keeley Houghton of Worcestershire was "sentenced to three months in a young offenders' institution" after posting death threats in Facebook, The Guardian reports. It added that the person she had threatened, another 18-year-old, Emily Moore, "had been victimized for four years [by Houghton], the court heard, and had previously suffered a physical assault as well as damage to her home." Houghton had two prior convictions as a result of that offline harassment. Here's coverage from the Times Online and the BBC.

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    Tuesday, August 18, 2009

    Another adult cyberbullying case in MO

    A 40-year-old Missouri woman has been charged with felony cyberbullying for posting the photo and contact info of a 17-year-old girl in the "Casual Encounters" section of Craigslist, according to a report at CBSNEWS.com. Prosecutors said the posting, allegedly made by Elizabeth Thrasher of St. Peters in the St. Louis area, "suggested the girl was seeking a sexual encounter," and police said the girl "received lewd messages and photographs from men she didn't know and contacted police." They also said the girl is the daughter of Thrasher's ex-husband's girlfriend. Thrasher is the first person to be charged with felony cyberbullying under Missouri's one-year-old cyberbullying law, passed after the suicide of Megan Meier. Under that law cyberbullying is a felony "if a victim is 17 or younger and the suspect 21 or older," according to the report.

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    Friday, August 07, 2009

    Bystanders can help when bullying happens

    If your children are neither bullies nor victims, there's still a strong possibility they can help reduce bullying at school. A well-reported article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says it's a myth that bullying involves only the bully and the victim. The fact is that "the active involvement of bystanders frequently determines the nature, extent and outcome" of bullying behavior and incidents. The American Academy of Pediatrics says so. "In an updated policy published in the July issue of its journal, Pediatrics, the AAP ... said a European program that emphasizes the role of bystanders in preventing bullying in schools is a good model for US prevention efforts." It's referring to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which "teaches children that bullies are kids with problems and bystanders can protect victims." Patti Agatston, a school counselor in the Atlanta area and co-author of cyberbullying prevention curricula for grades 3-5 and grades 6-12, told the Journal-Constitution that 21 Atlanta-area schools have used the Olweus training, which also demonstrates how t get parents and the community involved. I think we can put a serious dent in psychological, physical, and digital bullying (digital just being another medium for the psychological kind) if we give them "permission" to be bystanders who contribute to solutions – encourage them to be kind and help out peers who they can tell are in trouble. [For another holistic program that has been tested in the US and UK, see this about CAPSULE (for "Creating a Peaceful Learning Environment."]

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    Tuesday, July 07, 2009

    Online 'walled garden' aimed at tween girls

    Here's an innovative idea for parents (of girls 8-12) who are concerned about predators: My Secret Circle. It gives new meaning to the safe playground or walled garden idea, because - with this hardware product, the My Secret Circle Access Key (pictured here), which plugs into a computer USB port - groups of real-life friends can socialize online while being completely closed off from the Internet and vice versa. As the site explains it, "My Secret Circle Friend Code Generator generates a unique 12 digit number" that can only be exchanged through an "invitation system," which allows the user to trade her code with a friend in person. "In order to become 'friends,' each girl must own an Access Key" and go through the code-exchange process herself. John Biggs at the CrunchGear blog seems to like it. The only problem is, the whole concept is based on the premise that the most common risk to online kids is adult predators. Research shows, however, that the most salient risk is cyberbullying and harassment - mean things peers say to each other; friends becoming ex-friends and violating trust; sharing passwords and impersonating peers; etc. Keeping adults out of girls' "secret circles" could actually have the opposite effect to what its creators intended: completely safe socializing. Here's the report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which contains the cyberbullying finding among others in a full review of online-safety research thru 2008.

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    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    Sexting picture a bit clearer, maybe brighter

    We all just got a little clearer picture on teen sexting (nude or sexy texting), and it's not quite as dark as previously painted. The first known (and widely cited) survey on the subject, by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, found that 20% of teens have "sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves." The latest figure - in a new survey by Harris Interactive for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Cox Communications - is very close to that (19%), but it's cumulative; there's a breakdown of who's involved in sexting and how. As ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid reports in CNET, "the data from the Cox survey showed that, while 20% of teens "have engaged in sexting ... only 9% 'sent a sext,' ... 17% received one and 3% forwarded a 'sext'.... That 9% number is too high but it's less than half the 20% figure commonly used. And 90% of the kids who sent 'sexts' said that nothing bad happened, even though 74% of the kids agreed that sexting is 'wrong'. Twenty-three percent felt that it's OK if both parties are OK with it and only 3% said 'there is nothing wrong with it'." It's when "something bad happens" that we worry, because of the child-porn-related legal implications (see "Tips to Prevent Sexting" for more on that), but sexting can also turn into cyberbullying. And here's what's concerning about there: According to Clemson University psychology professor Robin Kowalski, kids don't want to tell parents or other adults about digital harassment because they fear 1) they'll be further victimized if the bully gets into trouble and retaliates and 2) their parents will remove their computers or cellphones - social lifelines - in an effort to protect them.

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    Friday, May 29, 2009

    Disturbing teen behavior not prosecuted: Good

    Sixth graders posting a "cartoon" on YouTube about "six ways to kill" another girl in their peer group. The girl's mother was understandably horrified and called the police. The police later said they won't pursue charges, the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune reports, because they don't believe malice or hate were involved, also telling the News Tribune that "the girls called the victim’s mother crying and upset after the incident." Wise police. Technically, this could be considered criminal behavior, but this is also adolescence. The executive part of the brain that understands the implications of actions isn't developed until people's early-to-mid-20s. Kids "just don't think" a lot of the time, so parents need to be engaged and asking questions about why, for example, a child's spending so much time in an animation program - what kind of animation is she creating? Lines of communication must be kept open so kids are less reluctant to answer those questions, which can help prevent cruel behavior from happening. From the coverage I've seen of this incident, both law enforcement and school handled it as a teachable moment for the benefit of individuals and community - to their credit, if that was the case. I love how middle-school principal Nancy Flynn in Minnesota handled a cyberbullying incident, turning it into a teachable moment for all the girls involved (note, too, the helpful, informed comments below her account). See also "The Net effect" - how the Internet affects age-old adolescent behavior. [Thanks to Anne Bubnic in California for pointing Flynn's post out.]

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    Friday, May 22, 2009

    Debating cyberbullying legislation

    It's called the Cyberbullying Prevention Act of 2009, but some are calling it the "Censorship Act of 2009." The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), "is designed to prevent cyberbullying, making it punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison," FOXNews.com reports. One critic of the bill, UCLA law Prof. Eugene Volokh, said that - if the law were passed - he could go to jail for what he's blogged about the law! And my co-director at ConnectSafely, Larry Magid, told Fox News that "you can't legislate against meanness." MSNBC columnist Helen A.S. Popkin suggests that, with laws like this, legislators seem to be clear on principles but not on where the Internet comes in, as a reflection of humanity good and bad. "You know how shutting down the 'erotic services' section on Craigslist won't stop sex workers, or eliminate their higher probability of becoming crime victims by the marginalized nature of the trade? Similarly, outlawing meanness on the Internet won’t prevent hectors from preying on the weak on the Internet or turn jerks into saints in any aspect of their lives." And here's what really resonates with me: "Unfortunately, sensation rallies a mob more efficiently than adequate research and dissemination of critical information: how to recognize dangerous behavior, mental illness and suicide risk in teenagers, no matter the stressor," Popkin writes. Representative Sanchez defended her bill in the Huffington Post.

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    Thursday, May 21, 2009

    Harassed online, teen star bites back

    Miley Cyrus, aka Disney's Hannah Montana, has tweeted against cyberbullies. She "posted an angry tirade on her Twitter page following a flurry of criticism about her weight after she joked about her thighs jiggling," Reuters reports. She told her harassers to stop calling her fat, writing, "I don't even like the word. Those remarks that you hateful people use are fighting words, the ones that scar people and cause them to do damage to themselves or others." She suggested that people who spend a lot of time gossiping should "read their Bible" and articles about how cyberbullying affects people. Reuters adds that, over the past 10 years, 37 US states have adopted laws requiring schools to implement anti-bullying policies.

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    Wednesday, April 29, 2009

    Anti-gay bullying most pervasive

    This month two 11-year-olds, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Mass., and Jaheem Herrera of DeKalb County, Ga. - neither of whom identified as gay - committed suicide after anti-gay harassment and bullying at school. "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers," the Salt Lake Tribune reports, adding that "two of the top three reasons secondary school students said their peers were most often bullied at school were actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression." The Tribune was citing research by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and Harris Interactive. New York Times columnist Charles Blow cites even more data in an eloquent column, "Two Little Boys," where he considers why bullying of any kind, including what Carl and Jaheem endured, is so devastating for kids: "Children can’t see their budding lives through the long lens of wisdom - the wisdom that benefits from years passed, hurdles overcome, strength summoned, resilience realized, selves discovered and accepted, hearts broken but mended and love experienced in the fullest, truest majesty that the word deserves. For them, the weight of ridicule and ostracism can feel crushing and without the possibility of reprieve." GLSEN's latest study, its just-released "Harsh Realities," can be found here.

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