Cyber-bullying: student harassment capitalizes on social media

A recent study conducted by the Research Fellow Tove Flack at the Centre for Behavioural Research (SAF) at the University of Stavanger looked into the extent to which cyber-bullying occurs and the mechanisms behind reducing cyber-bullying’s impact.  A 2008 Tenelnor survey in Norway found that “two out of three children have experienced bullying via the Internet or mobile phones” (Science Daily).  Twice as many girls as boys report having been bullied digitally, and bullied children cite social networking cites, such as Facebook, and SMS and instant messaging as the most widely-used bullying channels.  Children with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to bullies, especially because their disabilities often set them apart, to some degree, from peers.  Often, students with learning disabilities are not well-equipped, either cognitively or socially, to deflect bullies’ comments and actions.  Parents must become aware of the problem in order to protect their children.

Flack’s research has focused heavily on hidden bullying.  Bullying, she explains, “means experiencing harassment on a regular basis over time.”  Cyber-bullying is a “hidden” outlet for bullying, as it often occurs outside parents’ or other responsible parties’ sphere of influence.  Cyber-bullying occurs through image and text.  Children may learn that unflattering photographs have been disseminated, or unkind characterizations sent to myriad peers.  Once images and texts have been released online, they are impossible to recover.Flack contends, “When friends sit together, it may seem easy and non-committal to send off an anonymous message with a disrespectful message to another person … [but] children and young people are normally not aware of how strongly it will affect the receiver.”

Children’s lack of understanding about the irrevocable nature of disseminating unfavorable information online does not make the practice tolerable; it heightens the necessity for intervention by parents, teachers and administrators.  Cyber-bullying is an extension of an existing problem; cyber-bullying is rarely limited to media but rather often another means of isolating and belittling a child that is a target at school and in other situations.  Quite frequently, cyber-bullying means that a bullied child does not have any type of safe space; school isn’t safe and neither is the phone or Internet.  Social media, SMS and instant messages themselves are not the core problem, but rather a means of perpetuating the long-existent bullying issue.  Flack believes that “schools have a great responsibility to contribute to prevention, detection and the stopping of bullying [by] taking up the netiquette rules at an early stage and inform about the dangers.”

Facebook is enormously popular at the moment.  Children and parents alike log onto their accounts and enjoy Facebook’s many social networking functions; the chat and wall functions are particularly important to bullies.  These are places in which bullies can directly harass their intended targets.  Some children go so far as to initiate major “blocking campaigns” so many children within a group “block” a bullied individual’s profile, thereby effectively cutting that part out of the social network.

Technology should not be feared; it should be used respectfully.  It is vital that students be able to harness technology’s capabilities.  It is particularly vital that students with learning disabilities be introduced to the technological innovations available to them.  Many technological innovations, including Dragon Naturally Speaking, audiobooks and the myriad resources provided by Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, are immensely helpful to children with learning disabilities.  Parents should both facilitate their children’s understanding of these resources, and the Internet’s capabilities, while simultaneously being sensitive to the potential of cyber-bullying.

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