The recent deaths of three teenagers victimized by bullying has sent shock waves through Nova Scotia and have now been featured in national media reports, including CBC-TV’s The National. Jenna Bowers-Bryanton and Courtney Brown, students in Chignecto-Central Board schools, are only the latest tragic human casualties. But in the wake of their deaths, harder questions are being asked about what is being done to safeguard vulnerable teens and what strategies might work in combating the insidious, silent torment of cyberbullying.
Bullying is an age-old problem, but it has taken on new forms, online as well as face-to-face in and around schools. Highly-publicized teen suicides prompt outpourings of grief and promises of remedial action, like the Nova Scotia Task Force, announced April 5 by Education Minister Ramona Jennex. Everyone agrees that online harassment is totally unacceptable, but the proposed remedies are all over the map.
The Truro Police Department’s answer is “Cyber,” a cyberbully-fighting robot that has been touring the Chignecto Board elementary schools for the past two years. So far the “Cyber” sound-and-light show, led by Const. Todd Taylor, has been given to 7,000 Primary to Grade 5 pupils and is being touted as one possible antidote to the problem.
“Cyber the Robot” has replaced “Elmer the Safety Elephant” in today’s social media saturated school culture. It certainly catches the kids’ interest and generates excitement, but does the scary pyrotechnic message actually work?
One of Canada’s leading experts, Shaheen Shariff of McGill University, has her doubts. Without wanting to rain on the Cyber parade, Sharaff says it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of such deterrent programs and there is little or no long-term research to see if such early interventions work to reduce online harassment.
Online harassment is so widespread in today’s junior and senior high schools that principals have been forced to intervene. When they do go poking around Facebook and other similar sites, they are treading on uncharted disciplinary territory in the tricky parent-school relationship, running the risk of “crossing the line” with parents.
“There’s no escaping it on the Internet,” says Bill Belsey, an Alberta schoolteacher who has spearheaded the Canadian campaign against cyberbullying. A survey released in July 2008 by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation painted an alarming picture. One out of three Canadians polled knew of a child who had been bullied online over the past year and 20% claimed to know of a teacher who had been similarly victimized.
The Canadian Teachers’ Federation followed up its survey by weighing in with a set of proposed anti-cyberbullying policies. Since then, many school boards have followed suit, including those in Nova Scotia. “Cyber the Robot” was the Truro-based Board’s answer to the problem.
The public outcry over cyberbullying has provoked overreactions, particularly in some American states. One of the leading U.S. authorities, Nancy Willard, takes a dim view of “fear-mongering” about social networking. Her book, Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens (2007), urges parents and adults to resist simple solutions such as banning Facebook from the schools.
Much of the “techno-panic” is driven by parents disturbed by the prevalence of pornography and inappropriate messaging on the Internet. Being cut-off from Facebook she likens to “excommunication,” putting teens at greater risk and making them more fearful of talking openly with adults about their serious personal concerns.
Imposing a strict “lockdown” on social networking makes it more difficult for students to access the “interactive technologies” so essential in preparing them for further learning, the workplace, civic responsibilities, and their personal lives. If and when students “cross the line” with inappropriate images, physical threats, or degrading, hurtful comments, then schools simply cannot turn a blind eye. But it’s not solely a matter of deterring students with scare stories or harsh disciplinary penalties.
Local medical authorities on teenage aggression like Dr. John LeBlanc of the Dalhousie Medical School see bullying of all kinds as ingrained in today’s youth culture. “The best approach,” he insists, “is to build upon a child’s assets, investing your energies in fostering healthy social relationships.”
There are no “quick fixes” when it comes to combating online harassment. It’s simply not possible to contain “cyber-savvy teens” by introducing a 21st century form of prohibition. Nor is it possible to turn schools into so-called “electronically fenced play yards.” Cyber the Robot’s school visits are simply one piece of the strategy, but only one small part of the needed longer-term community-building effort.
Cyberbullying is becoming a 21st century disease affecting millions of schoolchildren, including as many as 1 in 5 teens in Grades 6 to 8. What can schools do to combat cyberbulling and curtail persistent online harassment? Why is combatting cyberbullying such a challenge? Can we find a policy that actually works? Is it possible to balance the insatiable desire for online communication with the priorities of schooling in the 21st century?