In this year’s Teacher survey, lots of readers and listeners told us that they would like more information on how best to support students targeted by cyberbullying. Dr Roberta Thompson is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Institute for Educational Research. Here, she discusses strategies to help teachers feel more confident in dealing with cyberbullying, related research findings, and helpful resources.
For almost two decades, cyberbullying has been a significant concern for young Australians. I first encountered the problem in 2008 when I was a research consultant working on a school safety project. At the time, cybersafety education was just becoming a national priority and worries about cyberbullying were dominating conversations about young people’s safety.
Since that time, intensive research has been undertaken and campaigns for improving students’ online safety have emerged. A significant part of this work has fallen to teachers, who are associated with cyberbullying intervention through professional standards, national curriculums, duty of care mandates, and school-based policies and regulations.
Teachers’ intervention work is well supported through an extensive range of resources provided by government departments and philanthropic organisations. School-based presentations and workshops are also available through private providers.
However, very little is known about teachers’ participation in these programs or how interventions are put into practice. Nevertheless, in the course of my research, I have found teachers are often frustrated by cyberbullying behaviour and are looking for strategies to help them manage the problem better (Thompson, 2021).
The strategies discussed below may help teachers feel more confident in dealing with the behaviour.
Keeping up to date
In my experience, teachers are not always familiar with the devices and online activities young people engage with. At a recent presentation, I asked teachers to identify a series of social media icons typically used by young people. Many struggled with this task and several agreed that if they saw the icons on a student’s phone, they would have no idea what the app was used for or what safety advice they should offer. How many of the icons below can you identify?
Keeping up to date with young people’s online world is an important step in intervention. Australia’s eSafety Commissioner is a great place to start. As our national online safety regulator, they are responsible for providing Australians with the most current information about online safety. I recommend exploring the eSafety Commissioner’s Newsroom. The blogposts published here are a quick and easy way to stay informed about the digital world. The resource I find most useful is The eSafety Guide – it provides the latest information about online games, apps and social media, how to protect personal information, and how to report harmful content for each service.
Most teachers are familiar with the 3 recommendations offered for managing cyberbullying: block (or change settings), report and talk to a trusted adult. These protocols are research-informed and offer an excellent guide for intervention practice. However, it is important to note that not all young people are comfortable with blocking and reporting practices. Understanding why students won’t block or report is important. Students give these reasons for not seeking adult assistance when cyberbullying occurs and are more likely to just put up with it or rely on friends for help:
- a belief that reporting creates more conflict than resolution;
- a worry that if they report, they will be bullied further or ostracised in some other way; and,
- female students tend to describe reporting as ‘social suicide’, but both genders worry they will have their devices taken away or be punished somehow. (Thompson, 2021; Thompson, in press).
In my research, blanket responses from teachers and other adults such as ‘just block them’ or ‘turn off your phone’ do not help. Students want different options for managing and reporting cyberbullying. Suggestions made by them include:
- safer reporting mechanisms (some reporting mechanisms have been used to bully students further);
- specific help-seeking options for victims such as adopting an older ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ (peer) or bringing in young people who have been cyberbullied to talk about how they managed the problem; and,
- communication and coaching mechanisms that use genuine case examples and role play approaches.
Gender, age, cohort and school-specific problems need to be considered as well. For example, boys are more likely to have bullying problems in online gaming, so you need to know which games they are using and how to solve the problem in that context. Girls tend to have concerns in social media contexts such as Instagram and Snapchat. Again, you need to know the specifics of their concerns if you are to provide useful guidance. Younger students tend to have more problems with text messaging while older students worry about problems related to image and content sharing.
Cyberbullying is socially contingent and, therefore, interventions must be flexible enough to meet the various needs of students while maintaining safety agendas.
In talking to teachers, many say they don’t feel confident or skilled in managing the emotional distress experienced by students who are cyberbullied. Intervention frameworks do not specifically provide teachers with protocols for managing this distress and teachers worry about knowing when and how to intervene.
In my research, the strategy used by teachers confident in their ability to manage cyberbullying is ‘talk’. These teachers use conversation-based sessions with their students where questions and issues about cyberbullying are brought to the table and worked through. Understanding how students respond to cyberbullying and what bothers them about the behaviour makes it easier to find ways to help them manage emotional distress.
Teachers can support guiding conversations by introducing themes, ideas or responses from cyberbullying intervention resources like the eSafety Commissioner’s How to look after yourself if you are cyberbullied and Taking care of your wellbeing. The school’s health and wellbeing team is also a good place to get advice on how to manage students’ distress in relation to cyberbullying.
In the course of my research, I found that young people who were confident in their ability to manage cyberbullying had personal competencies and ways of operating that set them apart from less confident students. In general, these students:
- were comfortable with who they are;
- were capable of defending their position on social issues;
- had many friends across different social groupings;
- had friends who support them and make them feel like they belong;
- were involved in school activities outside the classroom;
- were often in minor or major leadership roles;
- were competent with technology and say their parents trust them online but agree there is some level of parental monitoring;
- worked well in teams and were collaborators;
- were creative problem solvers; and,
- were sensitive to the emotional distress of others.
These personal competencies have been described in the cyberbullying literature as protective factors (Ansary, 2020; Setty, 2022) and are well-aligned to the skills and capabilities outlined in digital citizenship and resilience-building programs.
There is also a strong connection between the skills displayed by these students and the general capabilities underpinning the Australian Curriculum and associated 21st Century skills. This point is important because it demonstrates that esafety education and cyberbullying intervention are not stand-alone curriculums. They operate in tandem with existing educational agendas.
This means that a mix of classroom activities, especially those that focus on or encourage the development of prosocial skills such as positive self-concept, positive self-efficacy, interpersonal skills, communication, collaboration and teamwork skills, ICT skills, creative and critical thinking skills, and empathy can make a difference in cyberbullying intervention.
As highlighted in the student examples above these capacities encourage positive attitudes towards responsible digital citizenship and operate as protective factors from cyberbullying.
Students, teachers and parents – an interdependent effort
I see the best approach to cyberbullying intervention as one that includes students, teachers, and parents working together to devise strategies to co-manage the behaviour. This interdependent effort calls for cooperation and collaboration from all sides and is not without substantial effort.
In my experience, providing opportunities for young people to work together with teachers and other adults to generate solutions is useful for coming to understand what they do online, how they do it, and why they do it. With this information in hand, students, teachers and parents can co-design interventions that meet the local demands and specific needs of students.
References and related reading
Ansary, N. S. (2020). Cyberbullying: Concepts, theories, and correlated informing evidence-based best practices for prevention. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2019.101343
Lan, M., Law, N., & Pan, Q. (2022). Effectiveness of anti-cyberbullying education programs: A socio-ecologically grounded systematic review and meta-analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 107200. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2022.107200
Pennell, D., Campbell, M., & Tangen, D. (2020). What influences Australian secondary schools in their efforts to prevent and intervene in cyberbullying? Educational Research, 62(3), 284-303. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2020.1795701
Setty, E. (2022). Young People’s Perspectives on Online Hate, Unwanted Sexual Content, and ‘Unrealistic’ Body- and Appearance-Related Content: Implications for Resilience and Digital Citizenship. Youth, 2(2), 195-216. https://doi.org/10.3390/youth2020015
Thompson, R. (2021). Teachers and cyberbullying: Interventions, workarounds and frustrations. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/1359866X.2021.1895967
Thompson, R. (in press). Young adolescent girls’ cyberbullying workarounds: Fear, worry, fitting in, and helping out. In K. Main & S. Whatman (Eds.), Health and Wellbeing in the Middle Grades: Research for Effective Middle Level Education (Chapter 8). Information Age Publishing (IAP).
eSafety Commissioner https://www.esafety.gov.au/educators
eSmart Schools https://www.esmart.org.au/esmart-schools/
Bullying. No Way! https://bullyingnoway.gov.au/resources/classroom-resources
AITSL Standards and Cyberbullying https://www.aitsl.edu.au/tools-resources/resource/cyberbullying-illustration-of-practice
With a colleague, or group of colleagues, return to the image in the article above. Explore the eSafety Guide to find out which game, app or social media platform the icons represent and more information about each – including user age restrictions and privacy considerations.
How do you keep up to date with the latest online, games, apps and social media being used by students and the related safety advice?
Thinking about the cyberbullying interventions at your own school, do they meet the ‘local demands and specific needs of students’? How do you know?