A truly excellent article is in today’s New York Times on the challenge our middle schools have with cyberbullying. You can access the full text online. If you’ve ever had to deal with your own child’s experience with a nasty email, text, online quiz or social networking page, you probably think the schools have this all figured out. After all, from the interviews you’ll read in the article, some middle school principals are dealing with this drama several times a week.
There are First Amendment and freedom of speech issues; concerns about illegal search of cellphones; worries as to whether off-campus activities are even the purview of the school officials. Staff must also deal with parents who either thoroughly don’t get it or will defend their child’s abusive behavior with the full strength of our judicial system.
Some of the most intelligent comments in the article come from those who’ve survived the trauma of the middle school cyberbully experience most recently: 8th graders. They question whether or not younger children should even be on social networks, fraught as they are with cyberbullying concerns. The children also recognize that parents haven’t experienced the techno-battlefield of adolescence and aren’t likely to have many pearls of useful wisdom. And they fear that clueless parents will just say “get offline” or “toughen up”.
Jan Hoffman, the author of the piece, interviewed many of the leading lights in the technology and educational field: the Anti-Defamation League (which Symantec/Norton supports with funds to educate teachers and administration about cyberbullying); Sameer Hinduja, a professor and researcher, who with his colleague Justin Patchin runs the Cyberbullying Research Center, www.cyberbullying.us, a leading cyberbullying research and information website; and Nancy Willard, lawyer and author of books such as Cyber Safe Kids, Cyber Savvy Teens.
While there is no silver bullet identified in the article either to stop cyberbullying or to arm schools with ironclad procedures, there are strategies for all participants to adopt. We can consider delaying our children’s use of technologies like web-enabled cell phones until 8th grade; we should uphold the end user license agreements on social networks and not encourage 9 year olds to join Facebook; we should listen openly when faced with reports of our children’s misdeeds and we should aim to support our beleaguered educators who have to waste so much of our tax-funded instruction time investigating cyberbullying. Most importantly, we should all try to understand how different our children’s childhood is from the one we had.