Cyber bullying is still distressingly prevalent, and is of great concern to schools and parents, not to mention the victims. We were lucky enough to be able to chat recently with cyber safety expert Susan McLean. She’s a former Victoria Police officer, who has also trained with the FBI in the US, and completed two university courses in cyber safety. She’s now a renowned expert, who talks to over 500,000 students a year in the drive to reduce cyber bullying.
We asked Susan about what cyber bullying is, the impact it has and what schools can do to help address it.
Toshiba CLASS: Susan, thank you for talking to us. Firstly, just what is cyber bullying?
Susan McLean: Well, there is actually no consistent definition, but essentially it is repeatedly mean, nasty, threatening and/or harassing behaviour using mobile technology. It’s not a one off remark, it is targeted, intentional and repeated.
It’ an extension of the bullying that happens in the playground, or at sports clubs, and almost always goes hand in hand with ‘in real-life’ bullying. But it’s online, via social media - which gives it a far wider reach, and sometimes can give the bully a perception of anonymity.
TC: How widespread is cyber bullying?
SM: We believe least 75% of young people have been cyber bullied at some point. However, it’s very difficult to track accurately – that’s because it happens ‘invisibly’- except to the victim - and also because many young people simply don’t report it.
TC: What is the impact of cyber bullying?
SM: It leads to poor mental health outcomes – including depression and even, sadly, victims taking their own life. Cyberbullying is a factor in a significant number of youth suicides. Part of the impact is the insidious, ongoing nature of cyber bullying. It’s relentless, it’s 24/7, it follows you into your home, a place where you should feel safe, but now you don’t. The impact of cyber bullying can be greater than ‘in real life’ bullying, because there is no respite.
TC: Do cyber victims tend to know the bully?
SM: Well, cyber bullying can be random, but in most cases the victim and the perpetrator know each other. There’s usually a school, sport or job connection. The bully may use an anonymous account – which is part of the appeal of cyberbullying – but they also want to be able to see the harm and hurt they are causing, that the victim is scared.
TC: Why should schools be concerned about cyber bullying?
SM: It’s a mistake to think that if the bullying happens outside of school premises, it’s not a school issue. I have come across schools that take a ‘not our problem’ approach, and fob off concerned parents. But even if the bullying happens in the victim’s home, at night, the harm continues in school, and schools need to take it seriously and be concerned. Schools have a duty of care to their students, and must provide a safe environment. Given that there’s a high likelihood that the bully is also in their school, and that the victim’s mental health and academic performance are impacted, it is absolutely a school problem. In fact, for many of the schools I talk to, it’s the number one non-academic issue.
TC: What can schools do in the fight against cyber bullying?
SM: There are three main steps that schools should take. Firstly, they must have a policy for handling cyber bullying. The policy should clearly set out what cyber bullying looks like, how to report it and what the school will do. The policy should be accompanied by guidelines, so that staff know how to spot pupils at risk, and what to do if they receive a report of cyber bullying.
Secondly, schools must also educate all pupils and teachers on what constitutes acceptable use of social media, and what is poor online behaviour. Education has been shown to the be the most effective form of prevention. Of course, it must be age appropriate, but a comprehensive understanding of cyber safety should ideally be taught to all students, from prep to year 12. In some countries, such as the UK, cyber safety is mandatory part of curriculum, but that’s not the case in Australia. Here, Digital Technologies is mandatory, but there is no minimum time required, and no defined curriculum – so lessons could be about creating a Word document. Of course, that’s a useful skill, but it help pupils understand cyber safety.
Schools also have a role to play in helping the child who is making bad choices – the bully - to understand the impact they are having and to change their behaviour. There’s a message for parents too, to raise awareness that their child could be inflicting harm, and to encourage them to reinforce the education they are receiving at school.
Finally, the school must set very clear expectations of what will and will not be tolerated. Those expectations must be very visibly enforced, with clear and consistent practices. Pupils need to see that the expectations are meaningful, and that cyber bullying behaviour will not be tolerated.
Learn more about Susan’s work on cyber safety at www.cybersafetysolutions.com.au