How to prevent cyberbullying: Keeping students safe

You don’t have to be a teacher — or even a kid — to know that bullying happens on a regular basis. According to the U.S. Department of Education, at least 1 in 5 students report being bullied. Even worse, 41% of students who report being bullied expect it to happen again.

Suffice to say, bullying behavior is a major problem that needs to be addressed. And with social media, cloud applications, and other digital technologies still on the rise, there’s no brand of behavior more toxic to K-12 students than cyberbullying.

But what exactly is cyberbullying? What does it look like, and how can you stop it? In this guide, we’ll answer those questions and break down steps you can take to create a more positive and much safer learning environment for our kids.

What is cyberbullying?

At this point in the digital age, cyberbullying isn’t exactly a new phenomenon — at least not everywhere. But now that school districts are catching up to the pack and adopting edtech tools and cloud technologies, it may be a challenge your security team has yet to fully understand. At any rate, let’s get you up to speed on cyberbullying prevention.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines cyberbullying as “the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages about a person (such as a student) often done anonymously.” At first glance, that might seem straightforward — but under the surface, it’s a lot more complicated.

Cyberbullying — or, as it’s also called, online bullying — isn’t exclusive to sending an offensive text message or posting a mean comment on social media. Nowadays, cyberbullying attacks may also happen outside of social networking sites and even occur on school-provided cloud applications, such as Google Workspace or Microsoft 365.

To illustrate the relationship between online bullying and traditional bullying, let’s take a look at three other types of bullying behavior:

  1. Verbal bullying: When a student uses verbal harassment, negative statements, insults, and name-calling to offend or emotionally harm their victim.
  2. Physical bullying: When a bully or group of bullies physically harm their victim.
  3. Social bullying: Bullies often humiliate their target by spreading rumors, playing pranks, and excluding them from social activities.

These three categories may sound a lot like traditional bullying, but they’re also a common thread of online bullying. As we’ll discuss, cyberbullying attacks — whether physical, verbal, or social — have just as much an impact on real-world health and safety as traditional forms of harassment.

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Examples of cyberbullying behavior

With social media and other digital channels now a staple of the modern age, it’s no surprise that cyberbullying attacks are increasingly prevalent. In fact, Pew Research Center estimates that 59% of U.S. teens have experienced cyberbullying or online harassment in one way, shape, or form, while as many as 90% agree it’s a serious problem.

But what does a cyberbullying incident actually look like? illustrates a few of the most common tactics:

  • Spreading rumors online, either through social media or cloud-based edtech tools, that are mean, hurtful, or embarrassing.
  • Threatening a fellow student with physical violence.
  • Posting a mean, embarrassing, or sexually graphic photo or video of the victim.
  • Impersonating someone else online to solicit private information.
  • Creating a mean or hurtful webpage, cloud document, or another digital file.
  • Doxing a student — i.e. revealing private information such as their address, login credentials, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

How can cyberbullying harm student mental health?
As the incidence of bullying behavior continues to grow, cyberbullying prevention has never been more important. For school officials — whose jobs aren’t only to educate their students, but also to protect them — it’s critical that they understand how toxic behavior affects the victim.

According to a recent study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, nearly 70% of cyberbullying victims say online bullying negatively impacted their feelings about themselves, and 31% say it hurts their friendships. In other words, cyberbullying attacks and other forms of toxic online activity do a lot of immediate harm to a young person’s self-image and social stability.

What’s most alarming, however, is the long-term impact that cyberbullying has on student performance, mental health, and physical wellbeing. According to one study, cyberbullying victims are more likely to develop:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hostility and aggression
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm
  • Low self-esteem
  • Stress
  • Eating disorders

From an academic perspective, high school students with significant symptoms of depression are more than twice as likely to drop out than their peers. Students who exhibit signs of emotional distress are also more prone to repeating grades and delaying academic progress.

But cyberbullying isn’t merely a risk to education, it’s more importantly a threat to student safety. According to Swansea University, cyberbullying victims are twice as likely to attempt suicide and self-harm. As if that’s not reason enough for school officials to prevent cyberbullying, there’s also the increasingly relevant threat of student violence.

Research from the Department of Homeland Security indicates a relationship between toxic behavior, cyberbullying, and violence. An analysis of 67 averted incidents reveals that nearly half of the planned attacks cited grievances against others as the primary motivation, with 21% of the cases being caused by bullying.

The second most prevalent motive found in these cases was a desire to kill (15%), followed by suicidal motivations (13%). In plots motivated by suicide, the most frequent cause of the incident involved grievances with peers relating to bullying. For many of the plotters, bullying behavior was a persistent pattern that lasted weeks, months or even years.

In any case, it’s plain to see that people who are bullied are more likely to plan acts of school violence. If a bullying situation goes from bad to worse, it could put lives at risk — that’s why school officials need to be focused on preventing cyberbullying and eliminating toxic behavior.

How can you prevent cyberbullying in schools?

Yes, digital harassment may put student safety in jeopardy, but that doesn’t mean cyberbullying prevention needs to be all gloom and doom. In fact, it may even be more effective to lean in the opposite direction and implement positivity wherever possible.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to cyberbullying prevention. In reality, you need to implement a multitude of different positive strategies simultaneously to cover your bases. To help you prevent bullying and ensure students are out of harm’s way, here are three positive areas of focus:

Creating a positive school climate

  • Encourage communication: Cyberbullying can be especially difficult to spot for school officials, who often lack the oversight to identify a bullying incident right away. Establishing a program that actively promotes openness and feedback through a welcoming reporting process is key to rooting out negative behavior. An open dialogue makes it easier for bullies, victims, and staff members to resolve the bullying situation without further conflict.
  • Instill positive online behavior: For a young person, digital citizenship is a given. But it may not always be obvious to young people how they should behave when interacting with others online. Promoting positive digital habits, kindness, and empathy is essential to helping them mature as digital citizens.

Raising awareness

  • Openly discussing mental health in the classroom: Young students are in a formative stage in their development. They may not be able to wrap their minds around their feelings, or how they should feel about bullying. Discussing these topics in the classroom can help students understand the psychosocial impact of bullying and erase the stigma around mental health.
  • Draw attention to bullying resources: Students often don’t report a cyberbullying incident because they’re unaware of the resources in place to help them. School administrators should actively share bullying resources with students and address any questions they may have about the reporting mechanisms and programs in place.

Enforcing bullying prevention policies

  • Do more than a zero-tolerance policy: Research shared by Verywell indicates that zero-tolerance bullying policies actually do more harm than good. They often punish victims by mistake, can be discriminatory, and don’t take age into account. Implementing a more flexible policy with the structure to address incidents individually can be a more effective approach.
  • Know the warning signs: Identifying the earliest indications of bullying is key to stopping it in its tracks. Bullies often reflect a sense of superiority and defiance, whereas victims appear underwhelmed, withdrawn, and reclusive. Changes in academic performance, mood, and personality are all indicators of a potentially toxic situation.

Cloud monitoring as a cyberbullying prevention strategy

Bullying prevention of any kind is never easy. Cyberbullying prevention is even harder. Because much of cyberbullying behavior is digital, it’s more difficult for school officials to spot an incident.

Social media falls outside the purview of the school district. That said, students still use school-provided cloud services to bully their peers — that’s why cloud monitoring is an essential cyberbullying prevention tool. A cloud monitoring solution works by scanning your cloud domain for signs of bullying, which might include:

  • Verbal harassment
  • Explicit and/or sexually graphic language or images
  • Discriminatory content
  • Threats or encouragements of violence
  • Discussion of self-harm or suicide

An automated solution like ManagedMethods detects these risks and alerts you of their occurrence as quickly as possible. This allows you to rapidly investigate the incident, implement applicable policies and intervene if necessary. In combination with a positive school climate that promotes kindness and openly discusses mental health, you can mitigate student safety risks and prevent bullying both physically and digitally.

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