Schools are enlisting students to stop cyberbullying

Digital natives can be crucial allies when fighting online abuse

For children growing up today, there is little distinction between the digital and offline worlds. “Phones have almost taken over,” according to John Arnolds, a teacher at a secondary school in north west England who has extensive experience dealing with cyberbullying.

The issue feels like it’s getting worse, according to Arnolds. “The problem is the technology is expanding faster than staff can keep up with, we’re playing catch up,” he said.

But letting youngsters — often the most well versed in the technology they use — take the lead in online safety is an approach which is gaining prominence among online safety experts.

While adults struggle to stay on top of technological changes, youngsters today conduct their lives digitally, giving them insights their teachers do not have, according to cyberbullying experts. They are also going through similar developmental phases, and may be listened to more attentively than adults speaking on the same topic.

No escape

School bullying is well known to be harmful to children, impacting their learning as well as their mental health. But online bullying — which tends to accompany offline bullying — comes with its own challenges.

“Our real concern now is that bullying carries on after the end of the school day. They haven’t got an escape,” said Arnolds.

It can happen on any platform, from social media to games, and ranges from setting up anonymous accounts to humiliate someone, to sharing sexual images without consent. The anonymity and ease of interacting online has seen nastier behaviours from students who might not behave that way normally, according to Arnolds.

With the social and communication landscape now completely transformed since their childhoods, there is a “huge challenge” for teachers and parents, according to Katie Wilmore, Head of Anti Bullying at The Diana Award, a UK charity.

A lack of understanding of the latest technological trends favoured by students — and how such trends fits into kids’ lives — causes widespread anxiety, she added.

But youngsters who grew up in the online world do not face the same challenges, and are familiar with online trends and language, which can often be nuanced and unclear to teachers.

Students lead the way

Peer-led cyber safety programs aim to harness youngsters’ first-hand knowledge of the online world and their “energy and enthusiasm to galvanise support” said Wilmore.

Students themselves are well placed to implement a “campaign that is not one off and can make sustained change over a period of time,” Wilmore added, which is communicated in the language of their peers.

The Diana Award runs one such program. It has recruited students, aged eight to 18, to be Anti-Bullying Ambassadors from nearly 600 schools across the UK.

Up to 15 students from a school are taught about identifying and reporting bullying. The course covers key areas of risk for youngsters online, and potential solutions, such as blocking messages or screen grabbing evidence.

There are refresher sessions throughout the year, as well as weekly support sessions for school teams.

The charity’s evaluation data has shown improvements in student and staff ability to recognise and deal with bullying, and reductions in reported bullying incidents.

While the program is flexible and schools can choose how they focus it, trained students go on to run school campaigns or host sessions educating other students.

Wilmore claimed research shows young people are more likely to speak to a peer if they have experienced bullying. The program also trains Ambassador students methods in receiving reports of bullying, such as through drop-in sessions, though Wilmore stressed the importance of staff support and knowledge of school procedures.

A global issue

But Cyberbullying is far from restricted to the most economically developed countries. Research by Dr Maša Popovac, psychology lecturer at the University of Buckingham, compared youngsters’ experiences of cyber bullying in the UK and South Africa and found they were generally similar.

But in South Africa – where cyber safety is not a policy or safeguarding priority — girls were more likely to have embarrassing pictures shared of them.

Despite lower access to technology than in the UK, students in South Africa were “very creative in being online”, sharing devices and using free WiFi spots, according Popovac.

For her, peer interventions are important as they can “harness what young people are going through in similar social, cognitive, emotional experiences” during adolescence.

Popovac developed an intervention to improve online risk perception and piloted it among teenage female students in South Africa. Based on an established behavioural change model, it was designed to challenge their thinking to encourage safer behaviour online.

“The main thing is for them to think about consequences in a way they haven’t before,” said Popovac.

The intervention began with an anonymous online questionnaire which provided data on the students’ most prevalent risk behaviours, such as sharing sexual images.

Popovac used this evidence to design tailored interactive workshops with students, facilitating a group brainstorm of solutions.

Though Popovac kept conversations on track, allowing students to come up with their own ideas was key. “During adolescence everyone wants to be independent, no one wants adults telling them what to do,” Popovac said.

A handbook outlining the intervention is being developed which aims to allow teachers to conduct the intervention themselves and help students take ownership of their online safety.

While still in an early phase, the intervention is set to be run on a larger scale in the UK with the Diana Award if evaluations prove successful.

Learning platform

Another peer-led approach designed by British charity Childnet has already been used internationally.

Childnet’s Digital Leaders program uses an online platform to train a group of 10 students to run online safety sessions to other students, school staff and parents. It also covers other key aspects of the online world, such as “fake news”.

The platform’s content was designed for UK schools, but Childnet CEO Will Gardner claims the organisation had a “very positive experience” of its use in English-language schools globally.

Arnolds said the program, implemented at his school, was effective at getting a message out to students, but couldn’t be sure of its overall impact on cyberbullying. He said there was great enthusiasm from many students, and allowing them to play a significant role also reduced pressure on staff.

But he added that the student led approach can be met with cynicism from some students, which limits its impact — a risk across peer-to-peer programs.

Arnolds also felt that students could have benefitted from some in-person training, as the novelty of the online platform wore off and sometimes became more of a game to students.

While schools in developed nations are often happy to let students take the initiative, in lower and middle income countries — where there is a strongly teacher-centric culture — this is not the case. Researchers working on the introduction of other student-centric programs in hierarchical and disciplinarian classrooms have reported resistance from teachers.

Resources in schools in poorer countries tend to be very stretched and there is sometimes institutional reluctance to give time to activities seen as non-essential. Popovac faced difficulties convincing South African schools to participate in her research, as issues such as teenage pregnancy were seen as more important.

“Priority is much lower and as a result young people are going online and navigating the online world without any guidance,” she said. “That’s more of an issue in developing contexts.”

With superfast 5G internet expected to soon take off in the West and access to technology growing worldwide, the rapid changes in digital are set to continue apace. Cyber risks will continue to proliferate and have the potential to overwhelm teachers.

Wilmore, of the Diana project, said in facing the vast array of challenges online, responses must focus on the similarities in aggressive behaviours, regardless of the platform.

“Young people still need parenting and teaching,” she said. “Just because they haven’t known a life without the internet, doesn’t necessarily mean they understand how to deal with negative behaviours they experience.” — Will Worley

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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