Navigating cyberbullying more difficult amid COVID-19, but there are options

Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar knows one of the first things parents and educators may want to do when a student is cyberbullied is get them offline. Yet the first step, according to Seigfried-Spellar, an associate professor with Purdue University’s Department of Computer and Information Technology, should be to just acknowledge how hard it was for the student to report bullying in the first place.

“Kids are afraid of being victims of cyberbullying and also afraid of how parents and teachers will react,” Seigfried-Spellar said. “They’re afraid to have their tech taken away from them.”

A majority of adults can’t imagine not being online amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S. alone, 53% of adults said the internet has been essential to their lives since COVID-19 hit, according to Pew Research Center data from April. Students are increasingly online, as well, not only engaging with their friends but also taking classes.

While social distancing may have lessened physical bullying that happened between classes, in hallways or after school, it likely hasn’t done the same to cyberbullying. In fact, an April 2020 report published by L1ght, an AI-driven startup that helps detect and filter abusive and toxic content online, found hate speech between children and teens on social media and in chat forums increased 70% since students transitioned to distance learning.

In the coronavirus era, when every one of a student’s friends is probably online, along with many of their classes in the fall, it’s impractical to have children off devices. But there are steps educators and families can take to help students — both those doing the bullying and those who are the victims — navigate the digital world more safely and thoughtfully.

Turn cameras off 

Seigfried-Spellar noted while digital tools are likely crucial in an online learning environment, educators can make choices to tailor what they’re using to what they need. For example, while many educators have made use of videoconferencing tools, every feature doesn’t have to be employed, she said.

She points specifically to chat functions. Teachers may want or need to be visible for a demonstration or lesson, but students don’t always have to be on camera. That scenario could create a situation that lends itself to bullying, for example, if a student forgets their camera is on, does something embarrassing, and another classmate screenshots that moment and later shares it to embarrass the student among their peers.

“Teachers need to know how technology is being used, and maybe disable it to minimize bullying,” she said.

Encourage social connections online

On the flip side, being online can be extremely helpful for learners who feel incredibly isolated right now. In fact, online communities can be positive spaces for them, said Linda Charmaramansenior research scientist and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab for the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts.

Charmaraman has done research on young people’s use of social media and the internet. She’s seen them use online spaces as places of support, particularly for those who have had an illness, are navigating LGBTQ+ identities, or are dealing with experiences they find isolating, like the pandemic shutdowns and restrictions.

Over half of the middle-schoolers in one study reported giving and receiving social and emotional support online, especially about issues related to school, friends, relationships, family and worries, she said, adding, “The key is to teach healthy online behavior that leads to healthy communities.”

Charmaraman and her team have followed 770 middle-school students since the spring of 2019. She went back to a subsample of that group in June 2020 to see how they’ve fared since the outbreak of the coronavirus, wanting to compare their online usage and behavior to pre-COVID-19. Her team found that while students are using social media more frequently, they’re also using it constructively, putting things online with more positive intentions.

“Compared to fall 2019, students this spring were more likely to post with the intention to make others feel good, respond when online friends shared good and bad news, and raise awareness of a social issue they cared about,” she said.

Stephanie Fredrickassociate director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education, also believes online spaces can help foster positive engagement among students, teachers and staff, and that’s happen since the COVID-19 outbreak.

These can include teachers, administrators and school staff providing daily virtual check-ins with students, hosting events and problem-solving to figure out how to turn important school events, like prom and graduation, into an online environment, she said.

Create safe practices and digital citizenship

Still, Fredrick believes educators should stay abreast of the latest resources and information that focus on digital media and cyberbullying, so they know what to look for in terms of concerns, and even have prevention strategies place. That can include adding digital citizenship skills into the curriculum, which she added can help children learn how to be “safe and respectful online,” she said.

She’s particularly keen on tools offered by Common Sense Education, which offers a free K-12 digital citizenship curriculum broken down by grade that can be modified for an all-online environment. She also points to the Cyberbullying Research Center which provides free digital citizenship activities for educators, plus cyberbullying prevention tips and even intervention suggestions for teachers and staff.

Seigfried-Spellars said educators can help students by teaching them they have choices in every decision they make as they connect and communicate with each other, both in-person and online. Whether that’s thinking before they send a text or feeling empowered to take action if they see someone bullying, these skills can make a difference in helping them stand up against cyberbullies or prevent cyberbullying from happening.

“Building digital citizenship into schools can help kids learn how to use the internet, and how to be a good citizen,” she said. “They can learn you have an opportunity to do something in a positive way or a negative way, in every single thing you do.”

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