Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This fact sheet provides information for educators and students to keep in mind when connecting via social media.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students.
Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/FriendingStudentsonFacebook.pdf
If it takes a village, where is that village? Reflections on the Dolphins’ bullying case
I’ve been studying the phenomenon of bullying for my entire professional life, and as much as I believe the best about others, I also have discovered that boys, girls, men, and women do not always *naturally* know the right thing to do. To be sure, they eventually learn what is socially acceptable in many situations, but not in all. And as we get older, the situations become more complex, and are acted on by many outside forces such as peer expectations, conflicting worldviews, personal insecurities and dysfunctions, and the sometimes miserably difficult nature of life. And in this murkiness eventually surfaces major problems. I think of teens taking their lives in part because of bullying. I think of child abuse and domestic violence and sexual assault. And I think of many other wrong choices and behaviors where one person ends up really hurting someone else. Like in the Miami Dolphins’ maelstrom involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.
We’re familiar with what has occurred, and the story seems to be getting more complicated and implicating more individuals every day. But let’s take a moment to focus on Incognito and Martin to determine if this could have been prevented (at least in part) if we magically were able to go back in time and influence their lives while growing up. Of course, we can’t, but if something can be learned, it can be applied to the teens we do have in our lives right now. And maybe, just maybe, it will compel us to act in ways that reduce the likelihood of a similar outcome in the future. We must remember that this doesn’t just affect two people, but has reverberations throughout the NFL, sports (with the NBA recently acting to prevent hate and harassment), and adult workplaces in America and beyond, and therefore – by extension – touches every area of our society.
The general sense from media reports about Richie Incognito was that he probably overstepped a line when it came to the way he interacted with Jonathan Martin who – assumedly – was just different in personality and constitution from him (and perhaps other NFL football personnel who believe Martin is soft, weak, and emotional). Perhaps those differences elicited some sort of reaction in Incognito. Some might say that reaction was hateful, but since we still don’t know all the facts, let’s at least agree that it was disrespectful and mean.
Perhaps it’s easy to condone or justify his actions because of a shared group mentality about how an offensive lineman should be, or about how a football player should be, or about how a man should be. However, from our extensive work with teens of all ages who are continually fighting battles to be included in one group and while not excluded in another group, we have learned that discrimination and stereotypical worldviews about how others should or not be, act, speak, or look is one of the major roots of bullying. Somewhere along the way, there likely was a marked failure of social institutions in Incognito’s life (school, family, faith-based organization, sports teams along the way, etc.) to teach and (more importantly) regularly remind him about peer respect, tolerance, and acceptance of individual differences. Would Incognito (and perhaps others) have treated Martin with hate (at worst) or callousness (at best) if those lessons has been deeply branded upon his mind and heart? Maybe, but I doubt it.
On the other side of the issue we have Jonathan Martin, who by media accounts is perhaps more sensitive than many of his peers in football – or, perhaps, is at least more open in vulnerably demonstrating that sensitivity. He may be struggling with some deep-seated issues, or he may simply have been subjected to repeated bullying to the point of breaking him. Here again, I believe that social institutions have likely failed him. Let’s say that he wears his heart on his sleeve. I can relate to that – I’m the same way (for better or for worse). I don’t imagine this is a recent development in his life, and so I will speculate that Martin has been this way and if so, has likely dealt with mistreatment from others before. To me, that means that there were likely opportunities from parents, from coaches, from teachers, and other adults to provide counsel, wisdom, encouragement, and specific techniques and strategies to deal not only with bullies but also with heavy emotions when life gets really hard. The fallout from this case has happened quite suddenly, but I imagine there were requests and cries for help all along the way that were dismissed or ignored. Perhaps this has been the story of Martin’s life. I am not sure; all I know is that this happens. People try to get help, and/or never receive the guidance and support they need, and then a major awful event happens.
For adults like Incognito and Martin (and perhaps for many others in sports and other spheres of life), there has probably been a massive failure somewhere along the line. For Incognito, perhaps no one really taught him how far is too far (and no one seemed to care enough to stop him, either). For Martin, perhaps no one was able to fully be there for him, to counter feelings of exclusion and rejection with feelings of inclusion, respect, and esprit de corps. Both of these failures could happen to anyone, and are happening to so many around us. And all of this begs the question: what are you doing about it?
Photo credit: Lynne Sladky/AP
Addressing Discrimination to Prevent Bullying and Cyberbullying
In this line of work I get to hang out with teens all the time, and many of them amaze me with regard to all that they’re getting out of their K-12 school experience. Others, however, make me sad because it seems that what made school awesome for me (being intellectually stimulated, seeing my friends and enjoying their company, and eventually finding self-worth, confidence, and my identity through personal and scholastic growth) has been forced into the shadows for them. Instead, they are preoccupied on a daily basis with worry and fear. Not just at school, but 24-7. And that seems to take precedent over everything else – which, of course, is no way to live.
It’s so frustrating to me because not only do these students struggle now, it’s probable that they will struggle in the future due to what they are missing out on at this crucial stage of their adolescent development. Hopefully, life will open up for them, and things will fall into place, and everything will be amazing for them. But I hate that certain wounds and scars from their school years will persist at least on some level. Especially because much of it seems preventable. Not all of it, but much of it. And so that’s why we are so passionate about identifying and sharing best practices to educators and parents about how they can help.
We believe that schools across our nation should be sacred institutions for learning, where students feel secure and free to focus and interact without worry or fear. We can’t do much about some of the things they worry and are fearful about, but we definitely can do a lot about harassment, hate, bullying, and threats of harm or violence. We have a ton on our plates as educators, but this has to take precedent over other priorities. We’ve told you that around 20% of youth are cyberbullied during their lives, right? Well, we don’t want 20% of the next generation dealing with some or all of the fallout we’ve identified as consequences and outcome for those victimized (lower self-esteem, negative emotions, emotional and psychological issues, delinquency and crime, and suicidal thoughts/attempts). (Side note: if you need any of these articles, please contact us.)
Since you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you are the type of person who will step in when you see overt bullying or cyberbullying, and address it in some form or fashion. Thank you. That needs to happen every time, and we are encouraged to see increasing numbers of school personnel across the nation step up to the proverbial plate on this issue. But what we’d like to see more of is a conscious effort to train and empower educators (administrators, counselors, teachers, coaches, and support staff) to preempt bullying and cyberbullying by identifying and correcting some of their contributive elements. For example, incidents of hate and harassment are often rooted in discrimination of some sort, and so we believe that some meaningful progress can be made by focusing in on that particular element. By doing so, it may prevent the manifestation of more serious conflicts and outcomes.
School personnel are morally and legally obligated to provide a safe educational environment for all students—one that is free from discrimination. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 requires schools to prevent and address sexual harassment and sex discrimination, and its interpretation has been broadened in the decades since its passage. It is safe to say that any form of discrimination occurring on campus that undermines a child’s ability to feel safe and concentrate on learning must be addressed if it is made known to school officials. Not only is addressing such behavior mandated by law, but not dealing with it could lead to claims of negligence and financial liability (as well as reputational damage) if harm to a student occurred based on discrimination.
We believe that all forms of peer harassment—on a fundamental level—involve some type of discrimination. This could be discrimination based on how someone looks, dresses, acts, speaks, or simply “is.” Youth can take the smallest difference and magnify it to cause drama, to build themselves up while tearing another down, or to indulge an impulse—in other words, just because they feel like it.
A quick story for you - and hopefully you can see the link…. We remember that when we were in school that we couldn’t wear t-shirts with inappropriate slogans or depictions. Occasionally, we heard of another student being sent to the principal’s office and forced to wear the shirt inside out or made to wait until his parents brought another shirt to wear for the rest of the day. This might not seem like that big a deal, but there is logic behind these rules and actions. First, inappropriate content on t-shirts compromises the positive, safe, wholesome atmosphere that schools strive to provide. That might sound idealistic, but part of any school’s mandate is to create and maintain a learning environment that is respectful, inclusive, and supportive – so that all students can have every opportunity to succeed.
Second, such shirts can be offensive and discriminatory to other students and staff at school and therefore infringe upon their civil rights. As a related example, the US Court of Appeals (2009) upheld a Tennessee school’s decision to punish students for wearing Confederate flag T-shirts, agreeing with school administrators that the shirts would cause a substantial disruption among students and staff on campus. Here, concerns of school safety amidst a climate of racial unrest in the community and on campus contributed to the ruling (demonstrating the importance of always taking into account the surrounding context of every situation). Interested readers should also see Barr v. Lafon (2007), summarized here, as it details that schools can act to prevent disturbances and/or violence even without a “substantial disruption.”
Third, they unnecessarily attract negative attention and thereby distract students from learning. Schools, then, can respond to problematic content—or the behavior that creates such content—if its effects are detrimental to their purpose and goals (such as constructing and maintaining a safe school environment!). Such content and behavior start with inappropriate clothing, inappropriate words, and inappropriate actions (like shaming, excluding, and ostracizing), and if not dealt with can subsequently lead to more severe forms of interpersonal harm.
Educators, you have more authority than you think you do as it relates to these sorts of issues. Take the time to address even the most subtle forms of discrimination you see. Set a hard and fast line, and create a climate among everyone at school (adults and teens) demonstrating that “we” are all about inclusivity, mutual respect, kindness, and “bro” moves. Call it out when you see it, and end it one-on-one with the offending student or in front of everyone (if it was an accident or joke that simply wasn’t thought through and can serve as a teachable moment). The hope is that even though you can’t see or measure their value in the present, doing so will cut down on the frequency and scope of bullying and cyberbullying among your students in the future.
Educators, Students, and Conversations about Technology Misuse
During the last several years, school staff have become well aware that what happens online often significantly impacts the environment at school and the ability of students to learn. It is also true that what goes on at school influences the nature and content of student interactions while away from school. That means that a lack of connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school pride, and other climate components may very well increase the likelihood of technology misuse off-campus by teens.
We are huge on the importance of creating and maintaining a positive school climate, and so we wanted to study this relationship through our research. We’ve done this in part in a blog entry late last year which demonstrated that in schools where students reported a better climate, students also reported fewer cyberbullying and sexting incidents. To reiterate, schools that were rated by students to have relatively “low” school climate had more reports of cyberbullying and sexting than those rated as “medium” or “high.”
Here are some other important findings worth mentioning:
Educators’ Efforts Matter
We also found that teachers who talk about these issues with their students are making a difference. Even though almost half (46 percent) of students said their teacher never talked to them about being safe on the computer and 69 percent of students said their teacher never talked to them about using a cell phone responsibly, when these conversations happen, they seem to have a positive impact. Students who told us that a teacher had talked to them about being safe on the computer were significantly less likely to report cyberbullying others.
Also, those who told us that a teacher had recently talked to them about using their cell phone responsibly were significantly less likely to say that they had sent a sext to another student. Of course the content of those conversations is also important. Once again, we call for more research to clarify what works in terms of teachers talking with students about safely and responsibly using computers and cell phones.
Students Remain Reluctant to Report
It is also noteworthy that fewer than 10 percent of targets of cyberbullying told a teacher or other adult at school about their experience (about 19 percent of the targets of traditional bullying told an adult at school). Much of the reluctance of students to report these kinds of behaviors stems from their skepticism that the teacher will actually do anything useful to stop the behavior. In fact, most students we speak to suggest that telling a teacher (or other adult) will often make matters worse.
Interestingly, 75 percent of students in our study felt that the teachers at their school took bullying seriously, but fewer (66 percent) felt that the teachers at their school took cyberbullying seriously. So clearly, adults in school have some work to do to convince students that these problems can be resolved effectively. How can a school or classroom hope to have a positive climate if students are afraid or hesitant to talk to adults about these issues? This is just one aspect of school climate that must be corrected if school administrators hope to develop and maintain an environment where youth can freely learn and thrive.
Expectation of Discipline
In our most recent research, we asked students to tell us how likely it would be for someone at their school to be caught and punished for cyberbullying. In general, about half (51 percent) of the students said that it was likely that a student from their school would be punished for cyberbullying. To note, this number dropped to less than 40 percent among the students who had actually been victims of cyberbullying.
When we examined this question from the perspective of different school climates, we found that students from the schools with more positive climates reported a higher likelihood of a response. Specifically, 65 percent of the students at the schools that scored “high” on our scale said that cyberbullies would be punished at their school compared to only 35 percent of the students at the “low-scoring” schools. Here again, the quality of the climate at school shapes student perceptions of accountability for behaviors online.
What is the take home point of this research?
Basically, there are fewer behavioral problems and higher academic performance in schools with a positive climate, the influence of climate extends beyond the school walls. Students who feel they are part of a welcoming environment will largely refrain from engaging in behaviors that could risk damaging the positive relationships they have at school.
You can’t separate climate from instruction. You can’t separate climate from leadership. You can’t separate climate from the purposeful things you do to build a relationship with students. If a school is doing great on one thing, it tends to all fall in line.
~ John Shindler, director of the Western Alliance for the Study of School Climate
Now that we better understand the online experiences of our students, and know that the climate at school is related to those experiences, the next step is to work to transform your classroom and school into a place where students feel safe, respected, involved, and connected. The resources on this site, and our latest book School Climate 2.0 can provide you with a road map for doing just that. Even though it is not an easy path to travel, we are confident that you will not be disappointed when your efforts materialize into happier students and staff and an overall better place to learn and teach.
There is a definite link between school climate and student online behavior. Without question, problems that occur between students in an online environment become issues at school. These issues often include a large number of students, as they can quickly share their opinions online with many of their classmates. Usually, the concern is brought to my attention by a student who reports being bullied or a parent who wants to know “What are YOU going to do about it?”
We have worked hard to educate our students and parents regarding online safety. Recently, we added a curricular unit at the seventh-grade level (soon to start in fifth grade). Each grade level participates in activities regarding cyberbullying. Additionally, we have had experts come in and talk to our students, staff, and parents about how to be more aware of online issues and how to respond appropriately. We are currently working on steps to communicate and practice online behavior expectations as part of the overall system of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at our school.
We try to assist students in resolving cyberbullying issues even if the behaviors did not occur at school. We have had our counselor or trained peer mediators meet with students who are involved in online conflicts to work toward a resolution. As the principal, I have met with several parents to inform (and often educate) them about their child’s online behavior. By confronting the issue, I believe our school climate has improved. Students (and parents) know that we care about them beyond the school walls. They know we believe a safe, bully-free environment is critical to providing the best education possible.
~ Dr. Barry Kamrath, Principal, Bloomer Middle School, Bloomer, Wisconsin
Cyberbullying Word Find: Talking to Youth about Internet Harassment
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
A word search to be distributed to youth to promote discussion about cyberbullying and Internet safety.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Cyberbullying word find:
Talking to youth about Internet harassment. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/cyberbullying_word_find.pdf