Last month, a young student named Phoebe Prince who lived just miles from our sleepy town apparently killed herself as a result of bullying, both in school and via text messages and Facebook. While the exact circumstances and details of the investigation aren't being released, it's clear that cyberbullying played a role in her death. In our own schools, we've seen an uptick in the number of students reporting bullying (even before this tragic death) via either social media or text messages. Whether this is because of an increase in awareness, an actual increase in online bullying, or the near ubiquity of Facebook is unclear.
Bullying, unfortunately, is nothing new. Neither, for that matter, is cyberbullying. It's simply a term that parents and politicians bandy about as they talk about "the dangers of the Internet," right? Or maybe not. The case of Phoebe Prince certainly brings the topic into stark relief and begs the question, "why is cyberbullying different?"
Parents in Prince's community are calling for the Superintendent to be sacked over what they perceive as an unwillingness to address the issue proactively and head-on. Many districts are now scrambling to implement programs and policies in the face of her death. And yet, unfortunately, too many other kids have struggled with depression, alienation, and even suicide as a result of bullying long before the World Wide Web and Facebook. What has changed?
To some extent, I think we can credit a generally increased sensitivity to the needs and struggles of our students. However, cyberbullying adds an entirely new dimension of permanence, public humiliation, and viral propagation to bullying. When threats and insults are posted on a social network for all to see (or at least the circle of acquaintances that matter to students), the effect can be fundamentally different than passing insults in the halls or the aggression of bullies in the locker room. It is inescapable.
Sure, students could just avoid Facebook, the Internet, and their mobile phones, but these are vital parts of their social interactions in the 21st Century. They are also always on, constantly reminding students of the discomforts of teenage life.
So what do we do? Are schools responsible for what happens outside school hours? If we just ban cell phones and block Facebook at school are we doing our part? I don't think it's that simple. As long as activities outside of school have a direct impact on learning, the school has a role to play in mitigating their harmful effects. Beyond the idea of promoting a safe learning environment, though, schools are well-positioned to gather information from students, provide feedback to parents and community resources, and hopefully intervene when a student is in danger.
It can be as simple as fostering good partnerships with local police departments or developing no-tolerance policies for bullying (cyber or otherwise). Creating strong communities of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and outside resources provides students with the safe havens they no longer have in a 24/7/365-connected environment. Facebook isn't going anywhere; our students' understanding of what they can and should tolerate and when to seek help is what needs to change.