There are those who think cyberbullying is an overpublicized issue, a passing fad that counselors and school authorities should be able to handle in the same way as they would schoolyard bullying.
But bullying experts have grown to realize that these online attacks are both different from and more insidious than traditional bullying. For one thing, perpetrators of cyberbullying may not be the type of students one would normally expect to find involved in traditional bullying. For another, the attacks can take place anonymously and quickly involve hundreds of other participants and onlookers. Cyberbullying effectively isolates its intended targets and haunts its victims relentlessly because the attacks reside and proliferate throughout a primary social network for today’s youth — the Internet.
Some experts worry that despite the growing frequency and severity of such incidents, counselors either don’t believe that cyberbullying is a critical concern or don’t know how to address this modern-day problem effectively.
“I don’t see the topic much discussed in counseling circles,” says Sheri Bauman, associate professor and director of the school counseling program at the University of Arizona. “That really concerns me. It is an important issue, and it’s here to stay.”
That perceived knowledge gap led Bauman, an American Counseling Association member of 25 years, to write Cyberbullying: What Counselors Need to Know. The new book, published by ACA, describes the problem of cyberbullying, the reasons why it occurs and recommendations for prevention and treatment.
Bauman and others in the field suggest it is imperative that counselors quickly get up to speed on the complexities of the problem and possible counseling approaches to address the problem, including the need to educate young people and their parents.
A pervasive issue
Cyberbullying is not only a different problem than traditional harassment, experts say, but also a growing one. Most estimates suggest that 20 to 30 percent of young people are involved in cyberbullying incidents, either as perpetrators or as targets. Cyberbullying can involve sending e-mails or text messages, posting on social networking sites or participating in “trash-polling” sites, where visitors are invited to post unflattering comments about someone, often on the basis of the individual’s photo.
Unfortunately, plenty of examples speak to the impact these tactics can have:
- Ryan Halligan, a middle school student with a learning disorder, was the focus of bullying and suggestions that he was gay. He hanged himself after a girl who claimed to be his friend (a relationship he sought out to dispel conjecture about his sexual preference) told him publicly that he was a “loser” and that she had been pretending to like him just so she could post their conversations online and humiliate him.
- Ghyslain Raza, a slightly overweight Canadian youngster, was famously dubbed the “Star Wars Kid” for a video he made in private pretending to fight with a lightsaber. Another student made it public by posting it to a website and, eventually, it was viewed more than 900 million times, with music and other features added on. Raza dropped out of school after being taunted repeatedly and sought psychiatric help.
- Megan Meier, 13, hanged herself after a boy she developed a relationship with online dismissed her by telling her, “The world would be better off without you.” The boy, however, was fictitious, created by the mother of one of Meier’s former friends and rivals.
- Jesse Logan sent nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend, who then circulated them online after they broke up. She was ridiculed and began skipping school. The school was notified, but didn’t act, according to her mother. Logan went public with her story in a TV interview but shortly thereafter hanged herself.
Increasingly, instances of cyberbullying are being reported in school counseling offices nationwide, often starting early in middle school. Even elementary school children can harass each other online through seemingly friendly chat rooms.
A different animal
How is cyberbullying any different from other types of bullying that take place during adolescence? “The nature of technology magnifies the potential for harm [with cyberbullying],” Bauman says. “The size of the audience who could potentially witness the humiliation of a target is enormous. The bullying takes place without restrictions of time and place, so the target has difficulty finding a safe haven.”
Jesica Lingo, a school counselor at Lake Chelan Middle School in Washington state, conducted her thesis on cyberbullying and has been close to cases at nearby schools. “Because the bullying is done with technology, it can spread much faster, is more permanent and invades spaces that were previously safe,” says Lingo, a member of ACA. “At the very least with traditional bullying, a victim could get a reprieve at home. Now, there is the possibility of 24-hour victimization.” With time, she adds, past verbal assaults and past incidents of traditional bullying can be partially forgotten and can begin to lose their power, but with online bullying, the taunts and insults remain in cyberspace to be read over and over again, causing the target to relive the bullying each time.
Because online social connections have taken on such importance for today’s students, having that environment contaminated by a personal attack can serve to dramatically isolate any young person who becomes a target, Bauman says. “Also, the anonymity of the Internet, and sometimes text messages, increases the boldness of the perpetrator and the fear of the victim,” she adds. “If the source of the behavior is unknown, it could be anyone, including an assumed friend. So, the victim’s basic trust is undermined.”
By its very nature, cyberbullying often draws in young people who wouldn’t normally be bullies, Lingo says. “There aren’t consequences because of the anonymous nature of the Internet and because they don’t see firsthand the negative effects of the bullying,” she says. “There is a lack of empathy.” According to Lingo and others familiar with the issue of cyberbullying, that divide between victim and perpetrator can have an even more serious effect on the emotional health of a young person who feels powerless and vulnerable.
Sexting, the practice of sending sexually suggestive or explicit messages or pictures via a mobile phone (as in the Jesse Logan case), adds another problematic layer to the issue of cyberbullying, says Christine Bhat, assistant professor of counselor education at Ohio University and a member of ACA. “The sexual component in sexting or ‘outing’ someone who isn’t ready to be outed can silence the victim because it is hard for a betrayed or embarrassed teen to seek help from a parent or other adult knowing that the adult might be offended or angered by the information or photos,” explains Bhat, who has studied cyberbullying and spoken broadly on the topic, including at the 2011 ACA Annual Conference in New Orleans this past March.
In addition, she says, although adults normally have a general grasp of traditional bullying, they are not always familiar with new communication technology, making it harder for them to detect a problem or to intervene to help resolve it.
“Several things make cyberbullying potentially more harmful,” Bhat says. “A large number of people are privy to the humiliation of the victim, not just those on the bus or in the cafeteria. It could be online for the world to see, laugh at or comment on. Victims become overwhelmed with the idea that everyone is tuned in [to their humiliation].”
Those most familiar with cyberbullying say the issue oftentimes isn’t taken seriously, which is a mistake. “The consequences of any type of bullying are not trivial,” Bauman says. “They are long-lasting and, in many cases, very serious, resulting in depression, anxiety and social withdrawal.” The emotional concerns of young people often cascade, she says, meaning that the anxiety and fear brought about by cyberbullying can cause social withdrawal and a lack of attention to schoolwork, then lower grades and, eventually, more unhappiness at home. Bauman says the resulting state is comparable to that of someone experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When someone writes a nasty comment on their wall in Facebook, it can be devastating for teens,” Lingo says. “Not only can all of their 352 [Facebook] friends read what was said, but all of the 576 friends of the person who wrote it can read it. For many adolescents, their Internet world is as real and as important to their social lives as their daily lives and school.”
As is the case with traditional bullying, counselors have three responsibilities when it comes to the phenomena of cyberbullying: assisting targets of the bullying, assisting the bullies themselves and educating young people, parents and other adults.
Marilyn Campbell, associate professor of psychology at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, specializes in the study of bullying and offered four principles she believed counselors should follow in a 2007 report on the topic.
First, she said, counselors should ask targets of bullying how they want to be helped. “As with any client, one needs to individualize the solution,” Campbell wrote.
Second, counselors should reinforce with young people being bullied that they are not at fault. “Avoid saying, ‘You need to be assertive. You need to stand up to the bullies. Just tell them to stop or ignore them.’ [The person being bullied] may feel blamed for the event and may retaliate,” Campbell wrote. While being careful not to blame the individual being targeted, other experts note that it is important to educate young clients about why they might be a target for bullies and discuss when and how these clients can be more assertive.
Third, Campbell wrote, counselors should find out if the person being bullied has other serious emotional issues, assess whether the other issues are related to the bullying and explore those issues along with the more practical aspects of the bullying incident to ensure that the client is fully treated.
Fourth, counselors should attempt to provide the client with some “positive peer relations and social cohesion, where peers and friends can support and protect him or her,” Campbell said.
“Victims need supportive therapy that does not blame them and skills training to help them behave differently in the future,” Campbell emphasized.
Treating both sides
Bauman mentions six topics Australian psychologist Evelyn Field developed to help targets of bullying: regulating feelings, understanding their role in the incident, building self-esteem, communicating confidentially, creating personal power and developing a network of support.
Bauman also recommends four types of therapy she believes to be helpful in cases of cyberbullying — in some instances, both for the target and the perpetrator.
Brief solution-focused counseling. This approach is “most appropriate for responding to incidents of low-level severity,” says Bauman. She notes that a 2000 study showed brief solution-focused counseling was very successful in helping both bullies and their victims. The approach encourages clients to focus on exceptions to the problem, build on their self-identified strengths, consider life without the issue and develop strategies for similar situations in the future.
Support groups. This approach can take on a number of different forms, Bauman says, including groups composed of various individuals who have been targets of bullying or groups made up of a single victim’s supporters and friends, plus individuals involved in the incident and the primary perpetrator, all of whom work together to come up with supports for the victim. In school settings, administrators can establish rules requiring that perpetrators participate in such groups. Oftentimes, the perpetrators are repentant and willing to help in an effort to rectify the situation.
Shared concern. Counselors hold meetings with cyberbullies and supporters of the person who was bullied to determine what happened and what might be done to improve the bullied individual’s circumstance, especially in cases in which a group was involved. The perpetrators of the bullying are encouraged to help the person they targeted and are supported in their efforts. Bullied individuals are also interviewed for their perspective on the problem, including what might have made them targets.
Restorative justice. Reserved for the most serious cases, this more formal technique is designed to rebuild relationships, while also allowing bullies and other perpetrators to make amends. The process allows targets of bullying to express themselves in a session in which the goal is to reach a formal agreement on how the victim can be aided. This approach has prescribed steps and a tight structure that might require additional training on the part of counselors, according to Bauman.
When it comes to perpetrators of bullying, Bauman points out that traditional punitive responses rarely change the person’s behavior. “Punishment teaches the offender what not to do, not how to behave appropriately,” she says. “And it may be that what he or she learns is just not to get caught.”
ACA member Scott Schaefle, assistant professor for counselor education at the University of Colorado Denver, emphasizes that bullies need counseling, too. “Old-fashioned empathy is important for victims and bullies,” he says. “Many cyberbullies are also victims of cyber- or traditional bullying, and empathy will help with rapport. Also, a harsh approach can just drive online activities further underground and make them more harsh, compounding the problem.”
Bhat adds that cognitive interventions may be effective in correcting bullies’ thinking errors, including disengagement and hostile attribution bias, in which bullies assume that others are always acting against them.
It is also critical to educate bystanders about how they are contributing to the problem of bullying when they choose not to intervene and to recognize them when they step forward with information, Bhat says.
Schaefle supports that notion, including in instances of cyberbullying. “If a slanderous web page gets hundreds of visits, it reinforces the bullying behavior,” he says. “If it is reported to adults who follow through and do something, that sends a very different message.”
Educating parents and other adults so they understand the technology, how it is being used inappropriately and how they can help cyberbullying targets is key, Bhat says. “People have realized that intervention in cyberbullying cases has to be systemwide. Having clear, widely known policies with descriptions of unacceptable behaviors and clear consequences evenly applied is necessary,” she says. “There are some schools that have policies that no one knows about.”
Counselors can also help their schools develop acceptable use policies (AUPs) and then make certain these policies are understood and adhered to by students (samples of AUPs are available online and in the book Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats by Nancy Willard). Some schools have students sign pledges and display the AUP prominently in the school building and online.
Bhat also believes parents can be reminded that because they pay for electronic media, they should take responsibility for its proper use by their children. She suggests that counselors pass on the following tips to parents:
- Set ground rules for the amount of time children can spend online. “Parents need to be aware that online addiction is becoming a mental health issue of concern, with a pattern similar to other types of addictions,” Bhat says.
- Establish rules about whom children can interact with and where, as well as what information will be shared with parents.
- Discuss appropriate versus inappropriate content and public versus private conversations.
- Discuss clear consequences for not abiding by the agreed-upon rules for using technology.
“Educating students, parents and teachers is a must,” Lingo says. “It’s not just a school issue or a home issue anymore. It needs to be dealt with as a community.”
Jim Paterson is a writer and editor and the head of counseling at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Md. Contact him at email@example.com.
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