“Bullying has butted its way into the digital age, negatively affecting the lives of students and educators. As with other complex educational problems, cyberbulling has no easy solutions.”
That’s the conclusion reached by Bernie Froese-Germain in his recent paper, Bullying in the Digital Age: Using Technology to Harass Students and Teachers. A researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Froese-Germain is part of a national work group of teacher trade unionists, education researchers and experts in communications technology who are collaborating to find solutions to this emerging problem. “Bullying is bullying — whether it’s done online by the latest technology or whether it’s done in person — and it is unacceptable,” says CTF President Emily Noble. “We want our schools to be safe and secure places for learning.” The CTF has adopted an action plan to address the many challenges presented by cyberbullying in schools and in the professional lives of teachers. It is part of an overall strategy that includes: • Developing national policy on cyberconduct • Undertaking joint initiatives with key education partners • Creating web resources and publications for teachers, parents and students • Lobbying for legislative protection against cyberbullying • Working in cooperation with other teacher organizations around the world, under the umbrella of Education International. Although the term “cyberbullying” was coined by Canadian educator Bill Belsey, the problem is by no means limited to Canada. Indeed, education unions in many countries are reporting instances of bullying via email, cell phones, text messages, chat rooms, blogs, and web sites. Experts agree that cyberbullies are often emboldened by anonymity. Hidden behind the mask of technology, they harass others with little fear of being discovered. But virtual bullying that takes place in cyberspace can have serious consequences in the real world: school absenteeism, poor grades, anxiety, anger, depression and worse. “The media stories are already tragically familiar,” writes Froese-Germain, “defamatory comments about teachers … on Facebook; students harassed online and driven to depression or even suicide; teachers deliberately provoked in class by students only to have their reactions caught on camera phone and posted to a worldwide audience over the Internet.” Scholars have expressed concern about the current policy void on this issue, and are calling on teachers’ organisations to work with others to develop and implement the strategies needed. “Policymakers will need to reconcile the multiple tensions unleashed by cyberbullying: freedom of expression; a rapidly evolving electronic communications environment; the best interests of the child; the well-being and working conditions of teachers; and parental and school protective authority over the child,” says Froese-Germain. The CTF has just released a pamphlet on CyberTips for Teachers, which encourages teachers to know their rights and responsibilities. Their advice? Be professional, be prudent and be prepared. Because teachers hold positions of trust, they must model ethical cyberconduct and maintain exemplary professional standards in email to students, parents and colleagues. At work, teachers are advised not to share their password with others, nor to leave their computers on and unattended around students. At home, CTF advises members not to use their personal computers to contact students or parents, nor to permit any images of themselves to be posted on the Internet without appropriate privacy safeguards. Legal advisors to the National Education Association in the USA offer even stronger advice regarding protecting teachers’ professional reputations online. Michael D. Simpson of the NEA Office of General Counsel writes: “Never put in electronic form anything that you wouldn’t want viewed by a million people, including your colleagues, students, and supervisors – and your mother.” Simpson cites cases of teachers who have been fired or disciplined for wild party stories or sexually explicit pictures they posted on their MySpace or Facebook profiles. At least one NEA affiliate is urging all members to remove their personal profiles from such social networking sites. Teachers who do become targets of cyberbullies are advised to: • Make copies of the messages, including URLs • State that the conduct is unacceptable and demand that the sender stop • Beyond that, do not engage with the person as this could escalate the situation • Contact the parents if the cyberbully is a student • Tell your school administrators and your union. Some forms of cyberbullying can be a computer crime. If there is a question as to whether the cyberbullying is criminal or not, call the police. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers in the UK is also concerned that the abuse of technology is leading to bullying and false allegations against staff. The union has an incident report on its web site where members can report instances of cyberbulling in confidence. The NASUWT is campaigning for: • A review of regulatory and legislative provisions to prevent allegations being made about named teachers on Internet sites and to secure more accessible avenues of redress for those who are exposed to public ridicule and false allegations; • More effective school policies which promote zero tolerance of cyberbullying; • Mobile phones to be treated as potentially offensive weapons and pupils’ access to them restricted during school sessions; • School policies which encourage or require teachers to provide individual mobile phone or e-mail contact details to pupils to be outlawed; • Heightened awareness of the need to be cautious when using social networking sites as the contents are being scanned by employers and hijacked by pupils; • The inclusion of reference to the use and abuse of technology in the Health and Safety Executive’s health and safety good practice guidance and in all workplace health and safety audits, including risk assessments.