This story was emailed through to me and it made me think differently about how we should be approaching cyber bullying. Have a read and see if you would change your approach.
For a long time, in my presentations on digital safety, I included a section entitled Approaches to Avoid and Alternatives to Use.
The worst experience I ever had in doing this was when I was invited to do the keynote presentation for a major state-level conference for an organization that does state-level work on school safety. I arrived the day before and was able to sit in on a fully day workshop for law officers on the new Internet safety curriculum just created by my host. I could have easily illustrated every one of my points on what NOT to do with this curriculum - and added a few points (Like do not include slides with NetLingo and Emoticons for the purpose of demonstrating to students that you understand their digital culture - sigh). So the next day, the agency director who provided the funding to the organization introduced me - and he and the director of the organization held a press conference after my presentation to announce the availability of these materials. :(
So this is a long message, outlining my current thoughts on approaches to avoid and alternatives to use. One important thing that I would strongly suggest is that if a school is going to have a guest presenter, you ask to review the presentation in advance of approving the contract. Also review any curriculum or messaging you are considering providing looking for the following concerns. Look closely for any of the following.
1. No hope. No help. Suicide is an option. I was looking into a report of youth suicide involving a sexting situation and found that 6 months before this sad event, the school had a presenter in digital safety who focused time on sexting. The students were told: If a nude image of them was shared, it would go public and destroy their reputation. If they reported this to the police, they would also likely be in trouble because they had created child porn. And that some young people to whom this happened have committed suicide. A semi-nude image of this girl had been taken when she was flat drunk (unconscious) at a party - so reporting would likely have gotten her, the student who hosted the party, this student's parents, and the other students who attended the party in trouble. The distribution was limited.
The messaging that cyberbullying or sexting is leading young people to suicide is EXCEPTIONALLY dangerous!!! It is also inaccurate. Suicide prevention professionals will tell you that there are always multiple risk factors involved in a decision to suicide. The greatest concern is contagion - presenting the idea that if you are being cyberbullied or a nude image of you has been shared, you should consider suicide an option. It has become "fashionable" for parents of young people who have suicided to set up organizations and promote themselves as speakers to warn against these risks. My VERY STRONG recommendation is to NOT allow any presenter, school staff or guest, EVER make this kind of presentation.
Always focus on the message that even if something bad had happened to you when using digital technologies, things will get better. The hardship and problems will not last forever. Help young people learn about the multiple ways they can respond to these negative situations.
2. Epidemic! Crisis! There is no epidemic of cyberbullying (or bullying) or sexting or young people hooking up with digital predators. The data on incident rates indicates around 20% of young people have experienced some level of cyberbullying - but it is important to also ask how upsetting these situations were and how effective the young people felt in responding, most surveys do not. When I ask, about 50% indicate the incidents were not upsetting or not that upsetting and around 60% - 70% indicate they were easily able or with some difficulty able to resolve the incidents.
There is no evidence of an explosion in sexting either. Most of the surveys with higher numbers combined "nude" images, "Semi-nude images (could be bathing suit), and "sexually explicit" messages in one broad category of "sexting." Many teens engage in sex and might privately send images. The issue of concern is the broader dissemination of such images.
Any organization, company, or presenter who focuses the "dangers" and uses inflammatory language in their marketing materials should be avoided. Fear-based messages will not prevent risk behavior. Focusing on positive social norms will change risk behavior.
The vast majority of young people are making good choices when using digital technologies and the majority of them are responding effectively to the negative incidents that do occur. Use this insight.
3. Simplistic rules against normative digital behavior. Look over materials to see if they suggest that the young person should not post their name or school name online. Facebook requires the use of actual names - because this results in higher accountability. There is NO evidence whatsoever of predators tracking down victims based on their name and school name. It is a good idea not post your home address or phone number. Also check what the materials say about posting photos.
4. Stranger danger warnings. "Never communicate with an online stranger." Or worse, is/was ISafe's message: "If you communicate with an online stranger, you are a willing participant in online predation." Millions of children are waddling around Club Penguin safely communicating and playing games with strangers. Also, strangers do not present the greatest risk. I track news stories on sexting and online predation. By far the most common news report is of situations involving teachers or coaches.
It is best not to let people you do not know - or a friend does not know - have access to your social media profile. But mostly what students need to be able to recognize is when someone is engaging in dangerous behavior - significantly older, always wanting to talk about sex, asking for nude images, sending nude images, promises of gifts, being "creepy," and the like.
5. "Tell an adult if something makes you uncomfortable." We can tell students to tell an adult until we are blue in the face and they are not going to - especially the adults have received all sorts of the above type messages that will likely cause them to overreact and make matters worse. Teens are striving to become self-sufficient - this is their developmental task - and you do not become self-sufficient by always running to an adult to solve your problems.
So we need to focus on strategies they can use themselves to resolve the challenges that might emerge - and indicate that they should ask for help if the situation is really serious, they are very upset, or what they have tried has not worked. Also advise them to tell the adult that what they want most is guidance - and if at all possible they want to respond to the situation without the obvious presence of an adult assistant.
6. Cute videos and "contracts" for digital safety. There have been a number of organizations and companies that have created "cute videos" imparting simplistic rules - some even advertise this as "teacher proof" - because all the teacher has to do is "plug" the students into the video and let them watch. Then the students "pass a stupid quiz" and sign a safety contract. Will not change risk behavior at all.
Encourage students to write their own personal standards related to posting information about themselves, posting information about others, interacting with a wide range of people online, responding if they are attacked or are at risk, responding if they witness another student is attacked or at risk.
7. Adult as "sage on the stage." Any adult who tries to act like a "sage on the stage" when presenting to young people from about grade 6 on is very likely to "trip on their toga." We are the digital immigrants. They are the digital natives. They know this. They will ROFL if you try to pretend that you know as much as they do.
In every way possible, engage students in talking with each other about their insight and personal standards. You can use older students to communicate to younger students. Or have small group discussions, followed by large group discussions. The adult should be "guide by the side" - asking questions to deepen understandings.
My cool story on this point. I was asked to present workshop sessions on Internet safety at a Girl Scout Leadership Conference. So I asked the girls if they thought the following statement was true or false. "The majority of young people make good choices online and respond effectively to the negative situations that do occur." Most of them said this was false. I told them this was true and I was going to prove it to them. They were at round tables. I told them they were doing to discuss two issues with their small group - posting personal material and safe interactions with others - and come up with guidelines that we were then going to discuss this in the large group. Each group came up with marvelous standards - so I was able to reinforce their insight. The high school students were able to do this more easily than the middle school students. So if you are going to try this technique, it may be wise to ask some older students to be leaders in each small group.
A woman who was at the door came up to me after and told me what she had heard. On the way out, one girl said to another, "Wow, there are some things I need to change on my Facebook." I seriously doubt she would have thought this way if I had stood up there and lectured. This very successful experience led me to really focus on how to use positive norms to address digital safety. This approach is what I have used in my new Cyber Savvy resources - on my web site.
I do hope this is helpful. Please feel free to forward this message to others - or post it on a blog.
Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D.
Embrace Civility in the Digital Age