It’s National Bullying Prevention Month – Will it Make a Difference?

Bullying and cyberbullying have been highly visible news topics over the past couple of years with tragic outcomes like suicides, and more everyday personal tragedies where students feel they have to drop out of school, change schools, join gangs, or somehow face the ongoing harassment.  There isn’t an adult who would happily show up at work day in and day out if they were being verbally, textually and physically abused 10-15 times a day, yet this is what many teen victims face in the cruel world of bullying and cyberbullying in and out of school.

October is designated ‘National Bullying Prevention Month’ and it’s worthwhile to take stock and see if progress is being made. Countless school assemblies have been held, classroom projects undertaken, policies defined and updates sent to parents to inform them of the issue and policies.

The White House has hosted a conference to combat cyberbullying, congress has held several panels to learn about the issue, numerous books have been written, lessons have been created, laws passed and organizations created, but has there been a reduction in incidents? Is there an increase in compassion among the student population? How about a greater sense of how to tackle the issue among victims? In other words, what results have come from the millions of dollars and miles of print donated to this issue?

There are a number of researchers investigating the bully/cyberbully and victim dynamics but I am most inclined to trust the studies conducted by Dr. Justin W. Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC). They’ve been researching the subject for many years and can compare their data over time. So what is their data indicating?

While many groups say they are unsure if cyberbullying is a growing problem or simply one that is more likely to be reported given the spotlight on the issue, CRC’s data suggests that neither is the case. Their data indicates that for at least the last 5 years victimization rates have held fairly steady around the 20% mark – with a noticeable spike in 2009. It will be interesting to see how 2011 figures into this table, but the evidence is not there to suggest victimization rates are going up –  nor is there data to suggest all the awareness campaigning (and spending) over the last few years has driven the victimization rate down.

Unsurprisingly, cyberbully offending rates haven’t changed much either. With the exception of a notable drop in cyberbullying in 2009 (which is interesting as the victimization rates spiked in that period so there must have been some highly prolific bullies tormenting greater than average numbers of victims), bullies continue to represent 15-20% of the youth population. Of course within these statistics are the crossover kids – where bullies are also victims – and the portion of youth that are the chronic bullies.

In 2010, the most recent study with published results, Patchin and Hinduja show the breakout of the types of cyberbullying that victim’s endure. Mean or hurtful comments online and rumors online are shown to be the two most prevalent forms – whether you ask the victims or the bullies.

And sadly, it will come as a shock to no one that girls far outstrip boys on the cyberbullying front – with nearly a 10% higher likelihood of being victimized, and a 5% higher likelihood of being a bully. Unfortunately some of the really great internet functionality lends itself to the way many girls fight – anonymous backstabbing, rumor spreading, or by shunning/ignoring girls they don’t like.

Like so much else in life, there is no one silver cyberbullying bullet. Instead, if we really want to make a difference, there are a series of changes that must be made.

  • Society: In much of today’s media, nasty and vulgar people get the spotlight – in movies, on TV, online and in print. If scheming, unkind, and unethical youth and adults are the cool role models for this generation, expecting thoughtful compassionate behavior is a pipe dream. We either change who we cast as role models or acknowledge that the path we ask youth to take is counter to popular culture and unlikely to succeed.
  • Parents: It’s going to take a mental shift on the part of parents. Some believe that bullying is just a part of growing up and that kids should work it out; presumably these parents were on the giving rather than receiving end of bullying in their youth. Some parents don’t feel they have the skills or confidence needed to stand up and protect their children; they may use their lack of internet savvy as an excuse, or not even bother making an excuse; either way their children are left unprotected. Some parents are too self-absorbed with their own lives, misery, careers, etc. to give a damn – and their children are left unprotected. And some parents are bullying their children and/or are letting siblings be bullies. These same parents may also be bullying teachers, colleagues and others they come across.
  • Schools: All students have the right to a safe learning environment, but there is a percentage of teachers who are bullies who not only ignore bullying in their classrooms they actively model the despicable behavior. On the flip side an alarming amount of teachers are the victims of bullying by students and parents see my blog One in Three Teachers Cyberbullied – 25% Comes From Parents. Schools are also responsible for having an ongoing zero-tolerance policy towards bullying that is practiced at every level every day. Once a year assemblies aren’t going to drive lasting change. Making examples of a couple of kids isn’t going to drive lasting change. The only way to create a different climate of acceptance is to require that it be modeled by every student, teacher, or other staff member every single day. This challenge is particularly hard to accomplish when classroom sizes continue to expand, school counselors and nurses are as scarce as hens teeth, and budgets for anything but core curriculum is slashed to the bone.
  • Individuals: Every kindergarten student knows how they want to be treated, and how they should treat others. It is summed up by Robert Fulghum in his timeless piece “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten”. To help youth externalize the knowledge they internalized years ago and show compassion requires society, parents and schools to demonstrate and educate youth on acceptable behavior and compassion every single day. It also requires that society, parents and schools be ready to redirect and reprimand youth every single time they fail to act appropriately.

The LOOKBOTHWAYS Foundation’s NetSkills4Life curriculum has created two lessons on cyberbullying to help teach concepts, empathy, and skills. The first is Stand Up To Cyberbullying, the second is Stop Cyberbullying. This curriculum is available to schools, families and the public free of charge.

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