Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dealing With Cyberwars in the Classroom

Studies have shown that peer-to-peer bullying at school is more widespread than originally believed—and it's no longer limited to the hallways and playground. The connectivity offered by technology also allows for continued public ridicule long after class has been dismissed for the day. Cyberbullying occurs more frequently after-school and on weekends when students have more time to themselves. Increasingly, when instances of cyberbullying are found, parents often look to schools to manage the conflict. A recent feature in the NYT asks whether this responsibility should fall to educators, and explores the challenges faced by schools, parents, and the law in dealing with cyberbullies. The best defense against the resulting cyberwars may be education, but from an unlikely source.

Middle school is apparently still a very scary place. Preteens are undergoing a great deal of psychological and physical changes during these years, and their investment in the technology available to them means that they undergo these critical changes in a very public way, which leaves them open to scrutiny, ridicule, and increased pressure to conform.

The examples of digitally exacerbated conflicts in the feature could be plots from soap operas. For example:
  • A seventh-grade girl held a birthday party and a former friend showed up. By the following Tuesday, the uninvited guest had insulted the birthday girl’s dress on Facebook. She called it and the girl’s mother cheap, which was particularly wounding because the family is not well-off. By Wednesday, the principal said there were signs of potential conflict in the lunchroom: "When kids start posturing and switching lunch tables, you can tell.” An assistant tried to smooth the situation over, but the pestering continued online and a confrontation was planned. The details were texted, and on Friday, during the four minutes between lunch and the next period, 20 girls showed up in a hallway and began shrieking.
  • Another principal tells of a 45-year-old father crying in his office over a Facebook page that had sprung up about his son, who was new in town. The comments included ethnic slurs, remarks about his sexuality, and an unsavory nickname. Nearly 50 children were involved in the harassment and many of them readily identifiable. The boy could not escape the nickname. Everywhere he went—at soccer and basketball games around town—kids of different ages whom he had never met would say, “Oh, you’re that kid.” He began missing school. He became ill. Only after several weeks had passed did he tell his parents.
But as the feature reports, schools are hesitant to act. Court rulings have sent mixed signals about the role of schools in harassment that occurs off campus during non-school hours. While a few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect children from bullies, one parent in Beverly Hills, CA has managed to successfully sue the school for disciplining his eighth-grade daughter for cyberbullying.

The girl, identified as J.C. in court papers, took video of her friends laughing and making mean, sexual comments about another eight-grade girl, calling her “ugly,” “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.” J.C. posted the video on YouTube and was suspended for two days. Her father was outraged that the school would suspend her for something that happened outside of school. He sued. The school argued that she had caused a disruption: "the off-campus video could be linked to the school: J. C. told perhaps 10 students about it; the humiliated C. C. and her mother showed it to school officials; educators watched it and investigated." It required a substantial investment of time from school administrators to resolve. However, a judge ruled that because administrators were able to deal with the matter "quietly and before recess" that the suspension was unfounded because it did not cause a substantial disruption. The father maintained that J.C.'s actions were "not nice," but that they were harmlessly juvenile. The video has not been removed from YouTube because he wants other to see what constitutes grounds for suspension at this particular school—little thought appears to have been given to the victim in this case, who will forever have a record on YouTube of this particular encounter.

Preteens don't yet have an understanding of how public posts can damage them. On Facebook, a recent meme among 11 and 12 year olds residing upstate New York seems to be public dares. Here are two examples:

One dare required the person to smear her face with peanut butter and post a picture of proof. In another instance, "insider" memories were shared where one friend reminded another of a time she looked like a "crackhead." These incidences can quickly become ugly. Public spats are very public. And words seem meaningless because they're typed out and not said in a face-to-face context. Classmates are regularly called stupid and gay. This may be occurring on the playground, but when it happens online it exposes these comments to a much larger audience.

I've noted in a previous post that this type of behavior online by this group is one means of establishing connections—of demonstrating that you are a person of interest and savvy enough to participate in online activities. It is a new means of belonging. However, at least one group has reached an awareness that what happens online can be damaging—to themselves and to others. At Benjamin Middle School in Ridgewood, NJ, eighth grade girls are counseling six graders in online behavior. Their advice? If you're under 13, you shouldn't be on Facebook. As one eighth grader told the intent audience: “The Internet is a scary place. It can really hurt you. Our parents didn’t grow up with it so they don’t really understand it that well.”

Peer mediation is not a new technique, but in this instance, it may be the best recourse to raise a digitally-savvy and conscious generation. Kids adapt remarkably quickly to technology—and it falls to schools and parents to help them understand how technology can be used both for and against them. Some school have begun to hold assembles about digital citizenship. It's a good place to start.

You can read more about cyberbullying here.

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