Cyberbullying: A Proactive Approach

Oct 11, 2016 by


Wafa Hozien, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University. She researches and writes about decision making practices of school principals.

Wafa Hozien, Ph.D. – Over the past three decades, computers have dramatically changed our society and the face of education. The addition of mobile devices has expanded digital connectivity even more. The recent explosion and proliferation of social media sites now allows students to stay connected from anywhere, twenty-four hours a day. While these changes offer tremendous opportunities for educators, they have also opened up unprecedented opportunities for bullying.

Understanding the Problem
Bullying has always existed in schools in some form or another. Some types of bullying—such as physical aggression or name calling—are easy to spot and identify, but bullying can take far more subtle forms. With the advent of texting, e-mail, and social media, a new avenue for bullying has arisen: cyberbullying.

What is Cyberbullying? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ anti-bullying website ( defines cyberbullying as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology,” including “devices and equipment such as cell phones, computers, and tablets as well as communication tools including social media sites, text messages, chat, and websites.” All of these technologies are constantly changing, providing an ever-increasing number of outlets for cyberbullying to take place.

Different Forms. Cyberbullying comes in many forms. The most basic include harassment (sending nasty or insulting messages), outing (spreading embarrassing images or information online), and denigration (posting rumors or gossip that can damage friendships or reputations). Flaming—online fighting that often includes angry or vulgar language and tends to attack people rather than ideas—can be found on nearly every discussion board. Cyberspace has also made it far easier to perform impersonation, allowing students to send or post messages designed to ruin reputations or get someone into trouble. Exclusion is just as common online as it is in the school building, and online groups have even been formed specifically to exclude one or more certain individuals. Finally, those who find success with the other forms of cyberbullying may end up cyberstalking, engaging in repeated, intense threatening or harassing behavior. In essence, any form of non-physical bullying that can take place in person can also take place online, but with instant connectivity to an audience potentially in the millions, it can be drastically exaggerated in scope.

Psychology of Cyberbullying. There are several features of digital communications that can lead students who might otherwise never engage in bullying to become cyberbullies. Unlike face-to-face interactions, in the online world it is easy to be invisible and anonymous, thereby eliminating the fear of retribution. Many of the cues we normally rely upon in conversations—tone, body language, facial expressions—are also absent, which can lead to misinterpretations; something that we easily recognize as a joke in person can be seen as a personal attack when sent as a text, e-mail, or comment. Online communication is often asynchronous, taking place over hours or days, which can allow innocent comments to fester until students are responding more to the voices in their own heads than to the original message. In digital communication there is seldom any third party there to step in and attempt to calm the situation, or to point out inappropriate behavior. Finally, while we can often immediately see the consequences of in-person bullying, the consequences of cyberbullying can remain invisible, leading many students to believe they do not exist at all.

Unique Issues. Cyberbullying creates unique issues that are not faced in other forms of bullying. While most school-related bullying takes place in or around the school, cyberbullying can be initiated anywhere and at any time. We can attempt to regulate school computers and digital resources, but have no control over cell phones or home computers. As a result, most cyberbullying takes place with no way for teachers or administrators to become aware of it unless it is reported. More worrying is the fact that cyberbullying can take place twenty-four hours a day, and can invade the home of any student. Historically, students being bullied at school could find a safe haven at home or elsewhere after the school day ended, but this is no longer the case. Cyberbullying through harassing and threatening e-mails, texts, and messages sent at all hours of the day and night directly to a student’s phone or computer can be unrelenting and inescapable. There is also the concern of longevity: once posted to the internet, messages and files can be nearly impossible to remove, extending the bullying incident indefinitely.

Legal Issues. Nearly every state has anti-bullying laws on the books, but many of these laws fail to specifically address cyberbullying. These laws can also be vague or confusing, and may not address the latest technologies, leaving schools and districts with limited guidance. Despite this, recent court cases have determined that schools are legally responsible for addressing cyberbullying and can be held liable for failing to act. Even when the bullying does not take place on school property or during school hours, the school can still be held responsible if the bullying impacts a student’s learning. At the same time, attempts to monitor student online behavior have been met with public scorn and even lawsuits.

Developing Buy-in
Before any plan to address cyberbullying can be effective, it is crucial to garner buy-in from every group of stakeholders: administrators, teachers, students, and parent. Without the understanding and support of these groups, any plan is going to be less effective.

Administrators. Every effort to address bullying has to begin with a common vision among school administrators. This should span not only a single building, but the entire district. Administrators need to send a clear message that they are invested in the process and ready to support teachers, students, and parents in making it happen. Every administrator, from the building-level disciplinarian to the district superintendent, needs to be on the same page, have the same goals, and share the same methods.

Teachers. No teacher likes to see bullying happen, and most teachers already make a conscious effort to recognize and deter it in the classroom. Extending this attention to cyberbullying, however, requires extra effort and training. It is essential that teachers receive the necessary instruction and tools to identify and prevent potential cyberbullying situations from arising. It is equally vital that they know they have the full support of the school and district administration in undertaking this task.

Students. One anonymous survey of middle school students found that forty-one percent reported being cyberbullied, while nineteen percent reported that they had cyberbullied others. Clearly, there is already some understanding of the problem. What remains is to educate students on the solution. There must be clear instruction on what is and is not acceptable in their online behavior, on how to recognize cyberbullying when it is happening, and on how to constructively react to it. Students must also be able to trust that their voices will be heard, and that teachers and administrators are ready to support them when necessary.

Parents. Parents want their children to be safe everywhere, including at school and online. At the same time, they don’t want their children to face invasive monitoring or unjustified discipline. Regular, open communication is key, including clear expectations of behavior and guidelines for discipline. Let them know that the school takes cyberbullying seriously, and provide them with suggestions of simple ways that they can help you prevent it. Parents also need to be aware that they could be held legally responsible for their child’s online actions.

Action, not Reaction
Too often, we are faced with reacting to bullying after the damage has been done. While reaction is essential, it is far better to prevent the problem from arising in the first place. Most schools have adopted anti-bullying policies and curriculum, but they may not address the unique challenges of cyberbullying. There are several proactive steps that schools can take to combat cyberbullying. Applied successfully, these actions can significantly reduce the need to react to cyberbullying after the fact.

Recognition. Before cyberbullying can be stopped, it must be acknowledged. We cannot pretend that the potential for cyberbullying does not exist, or that it is something that our students would never do. Admitting that cyberbullying is an important issue is not the same as saying we already have a problem. Quite the opposite: it is the first step towards eliminating cyberbullying before it can even begin.

Consistency. Cyberbullying can only be prevented once policies to identify and address it have been established. These policies need to be consistent, not only from student to student and case to case, but across every classroom. Ideally, they should be consistent across the entire school district so that students moving from one building to another already understand our expectations. It is vital for students, parents, teachers, and administrators to all agree on what behavior is unacceptable and how school policies will be enforced. It is equally important that enforcement of those policies be immediate and impartial.

Acceptable Use Policy. A strong Acceptable Use Policy can help prevent cyberbullying by putting in place clear-cut guidelines and penalties. Not only can it address students’ use of school computers, but it can and should extend those guidelines to any use of personal devices on school property or related to school events and activities. It should likewise make clear that any disruption to learning, even disruptions originating outside of school, can result in disciplinary action. The constant growth and flux of digital technologies and cyberspace necessitates a flexible policy that concentrates more on the general and avoids getting bogged down in the specifics of individual sites or actions; otherwise, you risk a new site or technology popping up tomorrow that is not covered.

Anti-bullying Curriculum. Students need to be taught their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens. They have to understand that their digital actions are just another aspect of their overall behavior, and that those actions must be held to the same, if not higher, standards. Students must be able to recognize cyberbullying when it happens, understand safe and responsible online behavior, and be aware of their options for dealing with cyberbullying if it does occur. While these lessons can be incorporated into every classroom, two places that make particular sense to stress them are in the computer lab and in the library, the two locations that students are most likely to access school computers. A number of online resources already exist to help with this instruction, such as the Digital Safety series from Discovery Education ( This free resource includes three modules designed around cybersafety, cybersecurity, and cyberethics. It has separate modules for students and parents, along with helpful educator guides. Even something as simple as learning how to set privacy options on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other common social media sites can go a long way towards eliminating cyberbullying.

Atmosphere of Trust. A cultural prohibition against reporting bullying of any sort exists within our society. Those students that do report bullying risk being labeled a ‘tattletale’ or worse, often leading to additional, and sometimes more severe, bullying. It is therefore vital to create an atmosphere in which students trust their teachers and administrators. This requires attentive, caring adults who take the time to regularly check in with their students on a personal level, who promptly address any sort of put-downs or other bullying within their classrooms, and who actively monitor public areas such as hallways and lunch rooms. Putting a stop to traditional bullying helps create a positive school atmosphere that can carry over into cyberspace as well. Students have to be able to trust that their teachers will act on reports of cyberbullying while maintaining confidentiality. Many districts have adopted free apps that allow students to anonymously report any type of bullying, including cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying can be just as vicious and damaging as any other form of bullying, and even more insidious. It cannot be ignored, or labeled too difficult to address. We need to create and foster school cultures in which everyone recognizes that cyberbullying is inappropriate. We need to generate a common vision of a bully-free educational environment, not only in our schools but online as well. We need to educate our students on how to identify, resist, and report cyberbullying if it does happen, and how to avoid becoming cyberbullies themselves. The best way to end cyberbullying is to prevent it from ever starting.

Beaufort, C., Fabian, L., & Jaros, J. (2013). A Collaborative Lesson to End Cyberbullying. School Library Monthly, 30(1), 31-33.

Darden, E. (2015). Courts Join Crackdown on School Bullies. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(7), 76-77.

DeNisco, A. (2013). Addressing Cyberbullying In and Out of School. District Administration, 49(12), 18.

Fredrick, K. (2013). Dealing with Cyberbullying: Educating Students. School Library Monthly, 30(1), 24-25.

Simmons, K., & Bynum, Y. (2014). Cyberbullying: Six Things Administrators Can Do. Education, 134(4), 452-456.

Whitson, S. (2015). Bringing an End to Bullying. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 24(1), 50-54.

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