How to counter cyberbullying

As part of Anti-Bullying Week, Sam Pemberton discusses the changing face of cyberbullying

Compare any classroom in 2015 to a classroom of twenty – or even ten – years ago, and the influence of technological progress will be obvious. Tablet computers, online learning environments, thousands of apps for every conceivable need: all are at the disposal of students and teachers and all have, for the most part, improved the educational experience.

But inevitably, as technology has become ubiquitous, some people (of all ages) have found more unsavoury uses for it. Thanks to the internet, bullying is now more sophisticated – and more difficult to control – than it has ever been.

Cyberbullying is much less obvious than the Nelson Muntz-style bullying that used to occur in school playgrounds and, as a result, there is a tendency not to treat it in the same way. This increases the likelihood of affected pupils keeping it to themselves much to the detriment of their developing psychology: some wounds don’t show on the outside, but they can hurt just as severely.

Understanding cyber bullying

According to The i-Safety Foundation, over half of all current school pupils have engaged in cyber bullying, and over half have perpetrated it. Furthermore, over half of young people don’t tell their parents when cyberbullying occurs.

Although no longer a new concept relative to other bullying, its virtual nature makes cyber abuse more invisible and much harder to spot. It has rapidly evolved from taking place in the form of comments and messages on well-known social networks like Facebook and Twitter, to finding its way onto discreet chat forums and anonymous Q&A sites such as Formspring and on posts packed with seemingly unintelligible acronyms. As a result, parents and teachers alike now have a much harder time identifying cyberbullying in its early stages let alone keeping on top of it.

Raising awareness is of colossal importance, and initiatives like Anti-Bullying Week are a vital part of identifying those who cyberbully – and those who suffer from it. But more needs to be done to educate teachers about the issue, and about how they can tackle it when it manifests in their classrooms.

Tackling the problem

The temptation, when it comes to difficulties that originate in the online sphere, is to get censorious and restrictive with technology, but this is extremely unlikely to yield a positive result. The internet is an exceptional learning tool, and to block webpages and tightly restrict its use is to neuter its potential as a source of knowledge. 

Besides which, it is not an exclusively technological issue. While some members of staff may not have the most exceptional IT literacy, the more common problem is rooted in language. Young people, and especially secondary school-aged pupils, have their own unique vernacular; they always have, and it has always been incomprehensible to older generations. But in the age of cyberbullying, the problem has become especially pronounced: a full conversation between two fifteen year olds will look like a series of inscrutable acronyms to a grown adult.

Teachers are therefore challenged to understand this online vocabulary. Something seemingly innocuous (or even technical-sounding) may in fact have sinister meaning: DIRL, for example, means “Die in Real Life”; GNOC means “Get Naked on Camera”. My company, Impero Software, works with leading charities to compile keyword libraries that include terms such as these and many more: the software automatically alerts the relevant member of staff when these phrases and acronyms are used. The intention is to make educators aware of potentially harmful dialogues before they turn into more serious issues: they then have the opportunity to intervene with pupils and take appropriate action.

That said, this technology isn’t a cure-all, and it won’t solve the problem on its own – it is simply another tool in a teacher’s armoury, to tackle the changing nature of bullying. And, as this landscape evolves, it’s important that we (all of us with an interest in safeguarding young people) raise awareness for bullying in its latest forms and understand the best ways to tackle it. Let’s hope Anti-Bullying Week 2015 helps to do that.

Sam Pemberton is CEO of Impero Software

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