In This Issue

Cyberbullying: What school psychologists can do

Ways to prevent and handle cyberbullying incidents

By Craig Hase

On October 17, 2006, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself after being cyberbullied. The Myspace message she received read, “Everybody . . . knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you." The girl’s response: "You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over." Thirty minutes later, she was dead (Dubreuil & McNiff, 2011).

Six years after this tragedy, the story has become iconic. Many of us are familiar with the story of Megan Meier, and the events that led to her death. Sources indicate that she had been diagnosed with depression and ADHD, was on medication, and was struggling to fit in with her peers. It is now known that the “boy” to whom she wrote her final message was, in fact, a false identity crafted by one of Megan’s estranged friends and her friend’s mother.

Since Megan’s death, the prevalence of cyberbullying among school-aged children has increased (Hinduja & Patchin, 2012). Many schools are now instituting cyberbullying policies. School psychologists can access current research when disseminating knowledge to administrators, staff and students about cyberbullying. This will help school personnel and students adequately address this new form of relational aggression and build safer, more inclusive communities.

An overview

Currently, the most widely used definition of cyberbullying is: “the intentional and repeated harm of others through the use of computers, two cell phones, and other electronic devices” (Hinduja & Patchin, 2008. p. 5). As such, cyberbullying is considered to be that subset of verbal and relational aggression that involves the use of digital media to victimize others. This can include the use of instant messaging, social network sites, chat rooms, and e-mails with which to disseminate cruel or demeaning messages to individuals or to threaten or harass individuals using text, photos, videos, audio recordings, or multimedia forms. Cyberbullying occurs largely outside of any potential visibility of adults; can happen instantaneously; opens the opportunities for multiple or repeated victimization within a short time period; and occurs in a context in which the victim may be relatively helpless to prevent or respond (Smith, 2012).

Our research

At Southern Oregon University, psychology professor Dr. Douglas C. Smith’s team has conducted research in several local middle and high schools. Twenty percent (N = 536) of the 536 students in our sample had experienced victimization online, many of them repeatedly. This victimization was positively associated with conduct problems and negative emotional symptoms. These findings parallel and support previous research (e.g, Hinduja & Patchin, 2008). Interestingly, in our sample there were a number of factors that moderated the negative effects of bullying. The external factors that affected how students handled being bullied online were family, teacher, and peer support. Internal factors included zest for life, high levels of subjective well-being, and a high degree of self-efficacy.

What you can do

School psychologists can play a unique role in combating the harmful effects of cyberbullying. First, they can work to educate administrators about the dangers of online victimization, as well as effective preventative measures. Together, school psychologists and officials can orchestrate a comprehensive Cyberbullying Prevention Plan. This might include the following objectives, drawn from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) task force on cyberbullying (ADL, 2007):

  • Set clear school guidelines for Internet use in school
  • Teach students about ethical and legal standards for online activities
  • Update policies to include guidelines for Internet and cell phone use, and consequences for cyberbullying and online cruelty
  • Make reporting of cyberbullying and online hate incidents a requirement
  • Establish confidential reporting mechanisms
  • Devise supervision and monitoring practices of students Internet use on school computers
  • Educate students about cyberbullying and discuss strategies for reacting to cyberbullying as targets and as bystanders
  • Promote empathy, ethical decision-making skills and respect among students
  • Increase awareness of Internet safety strategies among students and their families

Unfortunately, studies show (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Smith, 2012) that prevention is only one piece of the puzzle. Because online victimization often takes place outside the purview of adult supervision, and often occurs off campus, the school must also institute policies that deal with incidents after the fact. School psychologists can collaborate with administrators to institute the following four interventions (ADL, 2007):

  • Take action immediately when cyberbullying takes place
  • Save the e-mail or other evidence
  • Assess the nature and extent of the problem
  • Determine appropriate consequences for the perpetrators in accordance with school policies
  • Report extremely harmful online speech, such as harassment, stalking or threats of violence, to the police
  • Discuss the incident and consequences with the perpetrators’ families to establish consistent expectations at home and in school
  • Provide social skills education and counseling to perpetrators
  • Inform school-based mental health professionals to assist the targets and the targets’ families in coping with the impact of the incident

As school psychologists, there is, of course, a final and important service we can provide: counseling. In my own work with students at a charter school in Southern Oregon, I have found that showing support, offering perspective, and a host of other basic counseling strategies not only help students cope with online victimization, but can allow the victims an opportunity for growth. As our research shows, those students who have the external support they need from important adults at school and at home, as well as the internal qualities of subjective well-being, selfefficacy, and zest, do best. They are the least likely to be victimized and the most likely to be resilient in the face of victimization. Counseling, then, can address the external and internal resiliency factors at the same time. It can provide that support from an important adult, and it can help students build their own internal resources.

References

Anti-Defamation League (2007). What you can do to respond to cyberbullying. Retrieved from http://www.adl.org/education/cyberbully ing/tips.asp#

Dubreuil, J. & McNiff (2011). Bullied to death in America’s schools. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/2020/TheLaw/sch ool-bullying-epidemic-turningdeadly/ story?id=11880841#.T7_Ger-HcRc

Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2008). Cyberbullying: An exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and vicitimization. Deviant Behavior, 29, 129-156.

Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2010). Bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Archives of Suicide Research, 14, 206-221.

Smith. P. K. (2012) Cyberbullying and cyber aggression. In S.R. Jimerson, A.B. Nickerson, M.J. Mayer, & M.J. Furlong (Eds) Handbook of school violence and school safety (2nd Ed.), pp 93-103. New York: Routledge.

About the author

Craig Hase is a second-year master's candidate in the mental health counseling program at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore. His research interests include cyberbullying and resiliency factors among adolescents.