Why do students cyberbully?

For a moment, imagine you’re a young student in today’s educational climate and you’ve just gotten home from school, set down your backpack, and pulled out your smartphone. You’re scrolling through social media like you would on any regular day when suddenly your heart sinks. Someone’s posted a mean, embarrassing photo of you online. Everyone’s seen it, shared it, and chimed in about it. And there’s nothing you can do to delete it.

Moments like these are clear-cut cases of cyberbullying. Unfortunately, these toxic experiences are frequent on the internet. In fact, Pew Research Center estimates that the vast majority of teens have experienced some form of online harassment in their lifetime. When left unchecked, cases of cyberbullying can spiral into something far more severe.

Research has consistently linked cyberbullying with a higher chance of developing mental health issues including anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

But what about the flip side of the coin? How does cyberbullying impact the bully? Moreover, why do they bully at all? And most importantly, what can your school district do to help?

In this blog, we’ll answer these questions and get to the bottom of cyberbullying. We’ll dig up why students cyberbully and give you a few tangible strategies you can use to eliminate online harassment in your school district.

The root causes of cyberbullying

StopBullying.gov defines cyberbullying as any type of harassment that occurs through a digital device, whether that be a cellphone, computer, or tablet. In other words, cyberbullying can take place virtually anywhere there’s a digital connection.

Anyone who has ever been bullied knows that — at least in the moment — the torment feels like it’ll never end. But unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying actually can last forever. Once something is posted to a social media platform and shared across the internet, there’s almost no telling how long it will last. In some cases, there’s simply no way of bottling it back up.

So, what is it that drives someone to bully? Where does it really begin? When you take a closer look, there are a few key factors that could lead a young person to start cyberbullying:

  • School climate: Negative school climates are ill-equipped to handle toxic behavior and lack a standardized approach to fostering positivity and inclusivity. Students in this environment may feel like they can get away with bullying because it’s a byproduct of their school climate.
  • Victim blaming: According to Verywell, some kids will cyberbully others based on their school’s social ladder. Or, they might cyberbully because they’re jealous of a student’s success or because they feel slighted by a peer. No matter the reason, kids often feel their bullying is warranted because of some perceived offense committed by their victim.
  • Peer pressure: The National Bullying Prevention Center argues that peer pressure can encourage students to participate in cyberbullying behavior. Sometimes kids are too concerned with fitting in to think rationally about their actions. Consequently, they engage in cyberbullying because they believe it will earn them social currency.
  • Power hunger: Cyberbullying can also be a manifestation of social status. For instance, the popular crowd might harass those that are less popular. Whatever the dynamic at play, aggressors use their social standing to flex their power over the victim, thus feeding their ego and garnering attention.
  • Lack of consequences: When students cyberbully, they have the choice of doing so anonymously. Behind the veil of anonymity, they might feel disconnected from their actions as if there are no consequences. This motive is even further compounded by school climates that don’t hold bullies accountable for their toxic behavior.

These motives may be major contributing factors, but beneath the surface, there are more latent forces at work. If you dig even deeper, you’ll find that there are other factors driving students to cyberbully. Kids are generally more likely to bully others if they are:

  • Having issues at home, such as a lack of emotional support from their caregiver, parents, or guardian.
  • Coping with their own trauma as a result of being bullied in the past or present.
  • Masking their insecurities or low self-esteem.
  • Being socially isolated, excluded, or stigmatized at school.

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How toxic behavior impacts the bully

Obviously, it’s important to put a stop to toxic behavior of any kind. Whether it be cyberbullying, traditional bullying, or verbal or sexual harassment, there’s simply no place for such behavior in the K-12 environment.

Not only is it vital to safeguard students who are at the receiving end of online harassment, but it’s also key to remember the bullies too. Bullies may be the aggressors in these situations, but they’re still your students — which means you should do all you can to give them the help they need.

Why? Because toxic behavior can impact a bully well beyond their adolescence. Kids who bully often carry their negative behaviors into adulthood. If not resolved at an early age, bullies can face serious ramifications down the road. According to StopBullying.gov, kids who bully are more likely to:

  • Abuse alcohol and drugs
  • Get into physical altercations
  • Vandalize property
  • Drop out of school
  • Engage in early sexual activity
  • Run into legal trouble
  • Act abusively toward romantic partners or children

Without early intervention, kids who bully are at risk of repeating a vicious cycle of behavior. Bullies who don’t learn to embrace empathy may also stunt their emotional development, which could increase the chances they act violently toward themselves or others.

Signs of cyberbullying in your school district

The key to putting a stop to toxic behavior and getting bullies the help they need is identifying bullying as quickly as possible. But because cyberbullying takes place digitally, this can be quite a challenge.

Fortunately, there is one digital channel that schools can use to keep tabs on cyberbullying: their cloud applications. In 2022, nearly all schools are operating in the cloud using services like Google Workspace or Microsoft 365. The only problem? Most lack the visibility required to monitor student activity.

Believe it or not, students can often hint at their personal experiences while using school-provided cloud apps. For instance, some students may be recording their thoughts in a Google Doc. However, others might be using the cloud as a means to bully their next victim. As a result, your cloud could be harboring evidence of toxic behavior, such as:

  • Name-calling, teasing, and other forms of verbal harassment
  • Discriminatory language based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation
  • Sexually graphic or violent content
  • Threats of student violence

Think about the services included in your cloud domain. Whether students are stockpiling embarrassing photos in a OneDrive folder or calling eachother names in Google Chat, any application could be used to engage in online harassment. If not identified, you risk allowing toxic behavior to continue and student wellbeing to fall through the cracks.

[FREE WEBINAR] How Technology Fits Into Your Student Mental Health and Safety Programs, REGISTER HERE!

How to handle toxic behavior in Google Workspace and Microsoft 365

According to research from Bradley University, school districts with lower rates of cyberbullying share certain characteristics. Typically, these schools have:

  • Implemented mental health programs to improve the campus climate.
  • Hired additional counselors to work with bullies and their victims.
  • Created clear anti-bullying policies.
  • Provided students easy access to resources they can use to report cyberbullying.
  • Monitored the use of internet services for signs of cyberbullying.

Each of these qualities are important pieces of the cyberbullying prevention puzzle. That said, there are two factors that rise above the rest: improving the school climate and monitoring student safety.

One of the best ways schools can foster a more positive culture is by investing in Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL aims to teach students self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills — three things they’ll need to succeed in their futures and function as positive adults.

According to research, SEL training has a significant impact on toxic behavior. In fact, SEL-trained students are 42% less likely to be involved in physical aggression. Another study links the training to a noticeable decrease in school bullying.

In combination with a cloud monitoring solution like ManagedMethods, school officials can work toward erasing toxic behavior. Using sophisticated artificial intelligence, cloud monitoring systems can identify student safety risks like bullying, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts.

Better yet, because detection runs automatically based on your set parameters, you don’t have to put all the pressure on your technology team to spot every signal. The platform works hand-in-hand with your team to identify risks, mitigate problems, and initiate the most appropriate response to every case.

Ultimately, creating a safer, more positive school environment comes down to spotting risks as quickly as possible and fostering a climate of support and inclusivity.

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