As educators, we are faced with the challenge of educating the youth of today for the future of tomorrow—a future that we can barely comprehend. While the speed of electric technology has been steadily accelerating during the twentieth century, it is only in these first few decades of the twenty-first that the role of the teacher is truly changing. No longer can one simply teach reading and writing along with arithmetic and call it a day. There are too many hats to wear now and, more often than not, they are being worn all at the same time. The contemporary classroom requires a skilled psychologist, therapist, life coach, and literary agent, who can translate the online world into teachable content to keep students engaged. Reading and writing skills are essential to obtaining knowledge about the world, however it is these specific skills that are being used against students within the digital arena of the Internet. These are the sort of fundamental truths about media and environments that inspired Marshall McLuhan to coin his famous aphorism “the medium is the message.” Our students’ young minds face steep competition for their attention from all forms of digital media which are now so prevalent inside and outside of the classroom. If we do not understand media and their ability to change the behaviour of the people who use them, it will be difficult to prepare the children of today to become the adults of tomorrow. Many skills associated with oral storytelling and face-to-face communication are being eroded in today’s contemporary digital culture. With the ubiquitous integration of smartphones, social media, and the Internet into the lives of young students, we have a very serious challenge ahead of us. The screen interface is now becoming dominant in almost every facet of experience and, within this new media environment, a new phenomenon has emerged known as cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is an action taken with the intent to inflect emotional harm or damage someone else’s reputation while communicating or interacting on the Internet. As such, the action carries with it unforeseen effects and consequences: some scholars go so far as to define it as “social terror by technology.”1 Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon in the life of students. It started to emerge roughly 10–15 years ago when online activity increased with access to high speed Internet. However, instances of cyberbullying have skyrocketed since 2011 when Apple released the popular iPhone 4S amidst the backdrop of the global population reaching seven billion. Stephen Apkon notes that in 2011, iPhone sales eclipsed the number of live human births for that year.2 Tom Harrison points out that technology’s rapid development and innovation has prevented the morality of young people from keeping up with it as evidenced in a study conducted in Britain with youth aged 11–14 that indicated the unsupervised nature of online communication allows for the possibility of cyberbullying to take place within the online medium.3 After twenty-five years of Internet use, research is starting to show that many cyberbullies carry out their online attacks simply because they can.4 The Internet allows one the opportunity to attack others online within an arena of anonymity. Cyberbullies have less shame and guilt than offline bullies, which is not surprising given the fact that they can remain anonymous while carrying out their attacks online. Cyberbullying rates are rising around the world as the use of computer mediated communication continues to both evolve and accelerate.5 Several social media apps, or platforms, have become common places for cyber-bullying to occur. Apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Burnbook top the list. Consequences of cyberbullying include mental health problems like depression, anxiety, guilt, fear, and even suicide.6 Both instigators and bystanders (audience) are part and parcel of the cyberbullying phenomenon.
Cyberbullying differs from regular school yard bullying in a number of ways. One significant difference is that online, the victim is often left unaware of who the perpetrator is. Agency is a huge factor in what makes cyberbullying so impactful and hurtful to the victim’s emotional state and mental well-being, because the attacks could potentially be from more than one person. Issues of temporality, including instantaneity and simultaneity, alter the effect of bullying’s familiar forms when it is cyber-based, especially considering the potential size of the audience. In one of the very first cases of cyberbullying, a young boy filmed himself acting out a fight scene from Star Wars with a telescoping golf ball retriever in place of a lightsaber. Unbeknownst to the boy, some of his peers uploaded the video to the internet and the file went viral, creating an online video sensation popularly known as “Star Wars Kid.” While the recording of video cannot be considered bullying because it was obviously done by the boy himself, the sharing—or distribution, of the recording without permission does represent an act of cyberbullying. In other cases which have become all too prevalent in the UK, a type of cyberbullying known as “happy slapping” involves the filming of slap attacks on unsuspecting victims in public places such as a city sidewalk or subway station.7 A victim is chosen at will while one perpetrator films the other participant running up and slapping the victim without notice. The video is then shared online for the amusement of a worldwide audience. Other forms that cyberbullying can take are cyberstalking, harassment via email or text message, and sexting (which opens up a host of issues involving child pornography).
The educational implications of cyberbullying are many. It brings the issue of media literacy into the spotlight. The new media is both participatory and dynamic, which is commonly referred to as Web 2.0. The content and the interface converge to form a unique influence that can motivate the user behave in ways they would not ordinarily act in the real world. The virtues of the user under these conditions and circumstances do have an effect on their level of interaction with online content, but the medium of communication itself is also of extreme importance. A question that needs to be asked more often is: “why are online comments so degrading and hurtful in comparison to other forms of communication?” The youth of today need a media literacy curriculum to teach them a best practices approach to internet-based communication. The British Film Institute has suggested that media educators use a teaching model based on their six core concepts of media literacy. The six core concepts are phrased as questions:
- Who is communicating and why? (Media Agencies)
- What type of text is it? (Media Categories)
- How is it produced? (Media Technologies)
- How do we know what it means? (Media Languages)
- Who receives it and what sense do they make out of it? (Media Audiences)
- How does it present its subject? (Media Representations)8
There are six areas of knowledge associated with each of the six questions. The pairings are not to be adjusted or re-arranged because they have been conceived of as being complementary to the particular question that they are associated with. Areas of knowledge important to analyzing cyberbullying are media agency, media audiences, and media representation. The agency question is helpful to determine the identity of the victim and the possible cyberbully/bullies. Since the Internet provides a level of anonymity to the attackers, it can be hard to determine who is the cyberbully. Usually there are clues from the victim’s experience at school that can help initiate a process of elimination to determine why they may have become a target for an online attack. By studying the audience of the cyber-attack, teachers and parents can gain insight into the motivation that caused the bullying in the first place. The issue of representation is key to understanding the dynamics of cyberbullying. The youth of today are extremely active on social media and use a variety of platforms to socialize, share stories, and communicate. Almost all online activity now relies upon mobile devices, or what we call smartphones. Because there are so many different places to interact online, passwords are required for login purposes. Accounts can be hijacked, or passwords leaked by friends, and victims of cyberbullying can have their online profiles manipulated in order to distort how they are represented in the online world.
Even though the nature of cyberbullying means that it will likely occur outside of the classroom, more often than not, it effects almost one third of students while at school.9 When students are cyberbullied, their perception of school and learning are altered in a negative light. New approaches are required to mitigate the impact of cyberbullying on learning at school.10 Progressive techniques such as art-journaling and no-bullying contracts are potentially useful for combating the effects of cyberbullying. A new strategy called empathy training has also been created to aid in the prevention of bullying in schools.11 Laura Wood and Elizabeth Pignatelli have carried out extensive research that confirms the effectiveness of art-based techniques for resolving emotionally traumatic experiences, the likes of which are inflicted by cyberbullying.12
A clear understanding of the roles involved in cyberbullying can aid teachers in assessing situations that arise with students in their classrooms. The terms victim, bystander, perpetrator, and instigator are important to know because they indicate the various roles that occur when bullying and cyberbullying take place. The interventions and prevention strategies that are introduced with Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) also show potential. SFBT has been regarded as an effective means of reducing negative behaviours such as bullying, cyber-bullying, and internet addiction.13 Teachable moments provide an opportunity to open up conversations with students about difficult topics, as such, Sandra Graham suggests that, when possible, teachers “should use witnessed bullying incidents as teachable moments.”14 Cyberbullying can easily be addressed within in a media literacy unit, even if teachers have not witnessed any signs of it occurring in their classes directly. Jessie Klein notes that he carried out a conversation with one of his classes in a similar way and recalls that one student suggested that it was not the victims of bullying that were mentally ill, it was the jocks that did the bullying that had something wrong with them.15 This student exercised critical thinking and flipped the script, highlighting the bias in the language used to discuss bullying in the context of school shootings (Columbine being the recent crisis in this particular case). Cyberbullying demands that new approaches be taken to address issues of violence and harassment both inside and outside the contemporary classroom.
Cole, Jarrett. “Cyberbullying.” Winnsox, vol. 2 (2021).