Cyberbullying and Our Nation’s Rapid Switch to E-Learning
Rewind back to the years 1998-2002. These were the years that my own experience with bullying altered the way I viewed my world and how I participated in it. I am thankful that I had the support of my family and stable home life to help guide me through those years. My depth of thought knew no boundaries, so I spent most of my days analyzing what was happening and trying to make sense of it. I grew up in a very safe, sheltered, and extremely hard working family. I watched my dad drive up in the same mismatched single cab toyota without air conditioning day after day to provide for our family. He would leave before the sun rose, and returned after the sun went down. He is the living definition of integrity and strength. My mom taught piano, sewed the most beautiful quilts, played for our local church, and maintained the most immaculately tidy home. She had a special talent for adorning the hallway with memories. She could (and still does) cook the meanest fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life, and I live in Austin where the food game is on point. My older sister, Amanda and I have always been close. We would make up dance routines to Mariah Carey in our hot pink carpeted, forest-green accent walled room. She was (and still is) my role model. My whole world revolved around what Amanda was doing, and whatever she wanted to be when she grew up, I wanted to be, too. She left for college that year I mentioned above, 1998. This was the first shift in my foundation.
1998. The year my sister left for college. The year I changed schools because the feeling of emotional safety at my own school outweighed the reasons for staying. I never understood how or why anyone could or would target someone (me) simply because they could. Not only were they able to get away with these actions every day, but they managed to rally a group to do this, too as though the others couldn’t think for themselves. Coming from a family that loved people and raised me to act as Jesus would, they taught me about grace and loving your neighbor as yourself. When others hurt you, it is because they are hurting, too. So, instead of reacting or retaliating, we would respond with compassion and love. After a while, though, compassion fatigue began to set in…especially at such a young age of eight. 1998 wasn’t the first year to feel this, it began much younger, it just hit harder the moment my sister left and I didn’t know what to do with all of my feelings. I think this is one of the reasons 3rd grade may be my favorite grade to teach. They feel just as much as adults, but it’s up to us to help guide them and give them hope that these are just moments that will shape who they are and who they’re becoming for the better. Just because kids feel big emotions doesn’t mean they’re not real, it just means it’s the first time they’ve felt something on that grand of a scale.
Skip ahead to 2001. The year the twin towers in New York collapsed to the ground because of a terrorist attack on our county. This was the first year I felt unsafe in the world. The above paragraph was a reflection of how I felt unsafe at school, but three years later, I along with my classmates felt unstable in a country that was deemed at the time “indestructible.” The scars that I carried with me from years of bullying from 1998 until this point were still very real. The instability I felt about my personal world and the world on a global scale was almost too much to take. Not only did I carry the trauma I had experienced at school, but the very person who targeted me all of those years transferred to my same school the very next year in 2002. I may have spoken to my parents, sister and brother-in law, and maybe two other people the entire year. I read a lot and spent many hours walking around outside and writing. With time I began to heal, and began to recognize that this journey had taught me patience in the midst of anxiety. It taught me how to love others who didn’t know how to love, and how to forgive someone without ever receiving an apology. It taught me resilience, and how to either outsmart or outlast the bullies in my life. I learned so much about my strengths and how to embrace my weaknesses, while extending that grace to others who were in similar situations. My family always instilled the value of living in such a way that no one would believe the lies that were spread. This is not meant to be a “sob story” or an attempt at gaining sympathy. It is merely to illustrate how tangible our threats were, and how these threats didn’t extend to what we know today as “cyberbullying.”
Cyberbullying is cruelty to others through technologically enhanced shaming in which this humiliation is amplified, uncontained, and permanently accessible. The echo of embarrassment used to only go as far as your home, school, community. Now it’s expanded online to public humiliation and there’s no limit to how far it can go. (Lewinsky, 2015).
Although what I had experienced at school was painful and I often carried those thoughts with me, I am thankful I lived in an age where cyberbullying wasn’t an option. We could escape all that was going on in the world and shut it out at home if we chose to. We had the ability to choose what we wanted to see and when we wanted to see it. Our society is more connected now than ever, which means our students don’t always have that same ability to escape their world. Thanks to algorithms on almost every online platform, social media, “big brother” listening and taking notes on our clicks, we are fed information whether we want it or not. Sometimes for our students that information is a spread of rumors circulating their social media platforms, haunted by these “echoes” in both their virtual and physical world. It becomes a vicious cycle that follows those affected by cyberbullying no matter where they are. The article Cyberbullying: self-esteem, empathy, and loneliness, described the differences between traditional bullying and cyberbullying stating that “those engaged in cyberbullying are not restrained by time or space and can use multiple media platforms, such as photos, videos, slide shows and interactive polls, to target their victims” (Li, 2007). The only way to escape is perhaps to disconnect from society all together, but we all know that isn’t healthy either. So where do we find a balance? Society has had a difficult time validating big emotions. We see this with the mental health crisis across our country.
So what’s the solution? Like mentioned above, it may seem as though disconnecting from society and its Internet is the best bet. Perhaps we flip a switch, ditch our phones, and run away to a secluded spot in the mountains or a deserted island (although both of these options sound lovely to me). However, isolation and seclusion are a part of the problem. We see this in our world’s current pandemic with COVID-19 in which the entire globe is quarantined or at least encouraged to quarantine themselves to their homes. I don’t believe any of us knew how devastating it would actually feel like now that we are no longer allowed to see our family or our friends, stand closer than 6 feet of another human, go to school, attend concerts, go on a date night to the movies, go to the grocery store without a mask and gloves on, go to the gym, or even order delivery as this is another method of contacting this bizarre virus that is rapidly crashing our economy and ripping the rug out from under our healthcare system. This virus has changed the world we knew. As a teacher, I now must scramble together a Google Classroom, learn online platforms I’ve never used before and teach my 8 year olds not only how to use their device remotely, but how to learn when I am not physically present with them. I miss them dearly, and it breaks my heart thinking I may never see some of them again, at least not this year. There hasn’t been a day go by since this social distancing began that I haven’t been moved to tears thinking about everyone that is being affected and how our lives have changed in the blink of an eye. Living situations have shifted, jobs lost, and we are all trying to pick up the broken pieces and find a new normal. However, I believe this tragedy is teaching us and reminding us that we were created for relationships and connection. No matter how introverted some of us may be, we need each other. We are at our best when we experience true intimacy, trust, empathy, and learn from one another. We are brought together by a few common bullies: a virus and poor leadership. This strange opportunity is giving us all another chance to not take each other for granted. This moment in time is a chance to reconnect with those around us online in a way that is compassionate and unifying. It is a chance to say “I see you, you are not alone, and you are loved.”
This to me is the path to combating cyberbullying of any sort. Anonymity and pseudonymity allow us to leisurely stroll through online environments without ever being known. Being known is fundamental in our human experience. When we eliminate real connections and masquerade behind the walls we build around ourselves, we lose a sense of responsibility for our actions. We have more reason and opportunities to connect with others more than we ever have before. Lately, when I log in to my social media, I am moved as I witness people choosing to put their phones down and sing or dance from their balconies in their best attempt to lessen the boundary we have during this time of social distancing. It proves we need each other. We need connection beyond friend requests and likes. We need to feel known.
School leaders and educators have an incredible opportunity now that schools are rapidly moving online to create climates of empathy and belonging. We must be diligent in our efforts to anticipate challenges, be proactive in combating the increased risk of cyberbullying, and empathetic to students’ home lives. Everyone involved in this change needs to understand that we have each other and are doing the best we can with what we have. We must extend grace to ourselves and everyone involved. We must teach our students to be leaders and respond to bullying appropriately when they witness it happening to themselves or others. Only by designing safe environments where students are given opportunities to practice social-emotional learning strategies, empathy, and connectedness can we help alleviate the frequency and aftermath of bullying.
References and Resources:
Brewer, G., & Kerslake, J. (2015). Cyberbullying, self-esteem, empathy and loneliness. Computers in Human Behavior, 48, 255-260. Brewer_Cyberbullying_Self-esteem_Empathy_Loneliness.pdf
Halligan, J., and Halligan, K. (2017). Ryan’s story. Retrieved from: http://www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org/
Hinduja, S., and Patchin, J. (2015). Bullying beyond the schoolyard: Preventing and responding to cyberbullying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Lewinsky, M. (2015, March 20). The price of shame. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_8y0WLm78U
Li, Q. (2007). New bottle but old wine: A research of cyberbullying in schools. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 1777–1791. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ j.chb.2005.10.005.
Struglinski, S. (2006, August 18). Schoolyard bullying has gone high-tech. Desert News. Retrieved from: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/645194065/Schoolyard-bullying-has-gone-high-tech.html
Cyberbullying.org is an online database of resources, articles, and personal testimonies that helps to educate parents and educators with strategies and tools they need to help take action in combating cyberbullying. This database provides extensive research and valuable resources that can teach the warning signals of cyberbullying. The goal is to educate, combat, and prevent cyberbullying.
Stopbullying.gov is the U.S. government’s site to educate on the effects of bullying and help prevent bullying from taking place. This site helps us navigate the laws regarding bullying, how it may differ between states, and provides resources and tools in preventing these acts. The United States government defines what is considered to be bullying. It is a good starting point for parents and educators to inform themselves of how the government responds to the threat of bullying.