Cyberbullying and School Policies
At the IPPN conference this year, the Minister for Education announced that he will be publishing guidelines and laws about bullying in schools. In particular, cyber-bullying is to be dealt with for the first time at government level. Bullying is still a societal problem, happening in every corner of the country, but now much of it has moved online.
The anonymity of the Internet can make it even more difficult to ascertain the identity of cyber-bullies and I believe that some cyber-bullies are unlikely to be bullies in the real world, thinking the Internet is a safety buffer. To give an analogy: Let’s say you are walking down the street and a man walks past you at speed and brushes against you, oblivious to you. Is it likely that you will shout out after him or run over and point out what he had done – how he nearly knocked the coffee cup out of your hand? You may feel angry but it’s unlikely you’ll do this. Let’s move the situation to a car. You’re driving a car and the same man overtakes you at speed. Is it likely that you’ll shout abuse or curse at him? If we are completely honest, we do. I think cyber-bullying is a little bit like this. If one has an anonymous identity on the Internet, one can be much braver than they would be in real life.
Cyber-bullying has allowed pupils take the bullying out of the school and into the home. All experts agree that parents now have to accept that this becomes their responsibility but whether schools like it or not, whilst we all have excellent anti-bullying policies, we cannot ignore the online nature of bullying even if it doesn’t happen on our grounds. I’m not envisaging that the school becomes responsible for cyber-bullying that occurs outside of school but schools need to be aware that cyber-bullying can happen on the school grounds and, like most other policies, we need to work with parents and families to ensure that the problem is dealt with together.
For me, as schools already have anti-bullying policies, we really need only to update them to include cyber-bullying. We may also need to update our definition of bullying and I would certainly welcome one from the government as the current definition is over 20 years old.
What should an anti-bullying policy have when referring to online bullying?
I think the bad news is that due to the ever-evolving nature of the Internet, a policy like this is going to have to change regularly. Right now, we have social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others but what will come down the line later? For example, Facebook doesn’t allow children under the age of 13 have accounts yet we know that a lot of primary school children have them. I also know that Facebook are considering changing this at some point so how will we deal with this?
Another thing to take into account is access. Right now most primary schools don’t allow children to use mobile phones during school time. This is likely to change given the BYOD agenda and the fact that mobile devices are becoming wonderful learning tools. How do we, as schools, develop policies around bullying on these devices? One second-level body has banned students from taking photographs for non-school related projects an almost impossible thing to police. However, what policy is going to work here? There’s also the consideration of access – how can we control whether a child accesses their social media account from their phone in school to post something online.
Furthermore, who does an anti-bullying policy cover in a school? What about teachers? Can they be protected? For example, what if a child decided to post something online about her teacher? What if a number of children took to the Internet to tear their teacher’s reputation to bits?
I think these are at least some of the questions that an anti-bullying policy will need to answer. I disagree that the answer will be to ban mobile devices in schools as it doesn’t tackle the problem. It simply moves the problem somewhere else and moreover, children will always find a way around bans. I do agree that talking about bullying is a definite answer. The government have a fantastic resource in Web-Wise to talk to children about cyber-bullying and Prim-Ed have a very good series of books that deal with the subject too.
The challenge for the government is that cyber-bullying is very difficult to police. Furthermore, many people who post things online, don’t realise that often what they post will hurt people’s feelings. I hope the new anti-bullying strategy from the government doesn’t go down the road of vagueness or banning things because neither will work. We need strong definitions for what constitutes bullying and we need strong strategies for helping families, schools and children for dealing with online interactions.