Speaking to Teens at Parochial Schools about Bullying

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on July 9, 2015

cyber bullying speaker to christian teens
Apart from our efforts within various public schools around the nation, Justin and I also work regularly with parochial schools as they attempt to reduce bullying and encourage kindness across their campuses. This gives us a chance to really connect with the youth there in a powerful way by dovetailing their faith with a call for God-honoring behavior – both offline and online.  As a Christian, I find these opportunities very rewarding, and I thought it would be good to share something I’ve presented and discussed with high school kids from one of the Catholic Dioceses we work with.  Perhaps it can be used to stimulate conversation in other parochial or youth-group settings.

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You’re a teenager.  You seek to live a life that honors the Lord.  And so you know you shouldn’t bully others.  If you were asked to give a scriptural reason for why you shouldn’t make fun of, mistreat, embarrass, or threaten someone else – certain verses might come to mind.  You might recall how Jesus talked about loving your neighbor as you love yourself, or the Golden Rule from His Sermon on the Mount.  You might remember how He talked about turning the other cheek.  Maybe you’ll even think about how He talked about how hating someone (or demonstrating hate towards someone) is like murdering them.  I know it is such a dramatic comparison, but that is what He said.

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The thing is, you know you shouldn’t be a jerk to others – in person, or behind their back at school, or on Instagram or Twitter or YouTube, or while texting your friends.  But many of us still do it.  Growing up, we care a lot about what our friends and peers think about us, and we care a lot about “saving face” and having as many people as possible like us and being at least somewhat popular…or, at least, definitely not unpopular.  And even though we know we should mostly only care about what God thinks about us, and what God has said about us – we still angle and jockey and compete for higher positions and statuses on the social ladder in our schools and peer groups.  I mean, it’s natural (and desirable!) for us to gravitate towards the popular and attractive and admired, and dissociate ourselves (intentionally or indirectly) from others that are different, or excluded, or otherwise less well-liked.

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Maybe we wish we weren’t like that, but that’s just how it seems to be – in middle school, in high school, and even in some parts of adulthood.  We pretty much do all that we can not to be the ones at the bottom of the social ladder.  That can’t be us.  It feels like we won’t be able to live, we won’t be able to breathe if that were us (as one of my favorite authors, Donald Miller, has said).  And so we make sure that it just doesn’t come to that – and we do whatever it takes.  Some of these ways are exhausting, and some of them are manipulative, and some of them feel empty and futile but we do them anyway.  And some of it definitely involves being mean to others – to make us feel better, to stay at least one rung above someone else on that social ladder, to join in with our friends, or for a variety of other not-so-great reasons.

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One of my favorite sections of the Bible is from 1 Peter 3:10-12, where Peter quotes David’s words from Psalm 34.  It reads:

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For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.  He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.  For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil.”

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I think that out of all that’s in the Bible, this is what personally motivates me the most to never ever be a jerk to another person.  Why?  Well, let’s break it down.

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I really want to love life.  And I really want to see good days.  All the time, if possible!  And I desperately need His eyes on me, and for Him to listen hard for and respond to my prayers.  I mean, who doesn’t need that! But it’s presumptuous for me to think that God is some type of glorified vending machine in the sky, dispensing blessings whenever I ask for them, and that I don’t have any role to play in it.

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Apparently, I do have a role to play. I am specifically told here not to mess around with impure or unholy or deceitful things coming out of my mouth.  I think if Peter and David were raised in the Information Age, they would probably have mentioned the other (more?) popular form of communication in our 21st century – typing and texting.  The words that come forth from my mouth, or come forth through my fingers all spring from my heart.  And I know I so want my heart to be in the right place when it comes to my relationship with the Lord, and my relationship with others.  Deep down, I know what that “right place” feels like.  It feels right in my heart when I am doing what the next two verses say – turning from evil and doing good, seeking peace and pursuing it, working towards righteousness (right living).  Actually, it feels amazing when I am there, and when I stay there. It feels like, wow, this is exactly where I am supposed to be.

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We are always looking for the best ways to live, for direction and guidance that might bring blessings into our life, and for God to keep watch and protect us and take care of us.  Peter and David, led by the Holy Spirit, very clearly lay out what we need to do for that to happen.  And it helps to remind me that I just cannot be involved in bullying or cyberbullying because it is sin, and it separates me from God.  And I can’t have any separation between God and myself if I want to experience His closeness, and be confident that He hears me and delights in the way I am trying to live. Plus, I know that it really messes up my heart. And I just can’t have that.

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When the opportunity arises to mistreat someone else, either at school or in cyberspace, I want to encourage you to remember that we just can’t be doing that sort of thing if we want to love life, see good days, and honor our God.  I mean, that’s the bottom line.  If that’s what you want, do not be mean to others.  Do not be that person. It is not worth it, and it never makes the situation – or the state of your heart – better.  Instead, pray about the situation and for the other person, and try to get some well-balanced and mature advice from friends and adults in your life.  People can help you respond to the conflict or issue that is at the root of it all – whether it is your own problem or someone else’s.  Give those people a chance to help you resolve whatever is going on in a positive manner.  If you don’t know where to turn, or what to do, let us know – and we’ll do all we can to help.

Setting up a Free Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on April 16, 2015

cyber bullying reporting systemI have written in the past on anonymous reporting systems in schools, and I strongly advocate for them whenever I have the opportunity to speak to educators on how they should prevent cyberbullying. Based on your own observations, I am sure you’d agree with me that youth are way more comfortable texting/typing – especially when it relates to giving emotionally-laden statements or sharing stories of a sensitive or delicate nature to an adult (such as a teacher, counselor, or administrator). Not only do these systems cater to the preferred method of communication for kids, they also offer confidentiality to the person providing the report. Furthermore, they help to empower youth to be agents of change and step up for themselves or for others who are being victimized. Finally, they allow for real-time reporting, can alert you to minor situations before they become major, and can provide a tangible “paper trail” of documentation for each and every issue that is made known.

Before I continue, I want to make a very important point. Schools sometimes are hesitant to set up these systems because they are concerned about false positives. They assume that students are just going to screw around with the system and make all sorts of ridiculous, juvenile reports and waste everyone’s time. They even wonder if some students will attempt to bully others by reporting them as an aggressor. Those are legitimate possibilities, but they are largely unfounded. Every school we have worked with that has implemented these systems has said that yes, they might receive a few insincere reports a year, but the vast majority are legitimate and provide extremely helpful information to consider. The bottom line is that using these systems allow students to be the eyes and ears out there in the school community to keep educators in the loop about issues they really must know. And getting in front of these issues – or incendiary sparks, if you will pardon the metaphor – can definitely keep them from flaring up into a blazing inferno of sorts.

Second, whenever I spend time with youth at schools, I am reminded that they honestly do want to speak up. They do. The problem is, they just don’t know how to do so safely and in a way that feels comfortable for them. And, they are concerned about the possible fallout from doing so (being found out, labeled a tattletale, targeted with retaliation). It is up to schools, then, to create and provide safe mechanisms for reporting, and to have policies and procedures in place to reduce as much as possible the potential for that fallout.

There are a number of commercial services to which school districts can subscribe that provide this functionality. Some are fantastic, well-developed, and even provide more advanced features – and therefore are worth checking out. However, since many school districts cannot afford to subscribe to a commercial service, or may want a solution with a smaller footprint, I wanted to share how they might provide a similar tool to their school community through Google Voice at no cost. I believe it does a great job of what we would want it to do: to field private reports from the student body to alert the school about situations they should investigate.

How it Works

The system is built around a main phone number created through a new Google Voice account and then shared with the entire student body as a tipline or report-line. The system then disseminates the student voicemails (rare) and texts (frequent) to school personnel such as the assistant principal, the counselor, or the school police officer for investigation and follow-up. Voicemails can be sent as a sound file or even transcribed into text, and then emailed to a specified address. Texts can be forwarded to a specific email (or multiple emails) as well.

All point people (administrators, law enforcement, etc.) who want to access the tip line will have to download the Google Voice App to their phone or tablet (Android or iOS devices). Once the app is downloaded, they must configure it congruent with the settings of the how the Google Voice tipline was set up (e.g., input the same login and password used to create the tipline in the first place). Once the app is set up, that point person can respond to texts and calls from tipsters from within the app, and only the tipline number will be displayed on outgoing texts (as opposed to the point person’s actual phone number). This is critical, because it maintains the confidentiality and privacy of the administrators and law enforcement who respond to tips from their personal devices.

Who Responds to Tips?

Typically, each school should assign a point person to deal with the reports as they come in. Specific responses can be based on offense seriousness; most are addressable by intervention from an administrator or counselor. However, if the matter is more serious (e.g., involves threats, sexually-explicit pictures of minors, coercion or blackmail, or viable evidence of other criminal activity) the school police officer or local law enforcement department should be notified to intercede.

What Should Be Reported?

In discussing the reporting system with students, it should be stressed that no issue is too small. We want students to use them extensively and to let the school know if there is anything amiss that should be investigated. Of course, schools should clearly convey that that actual emergencies should be reported to the police via 911 or another method. While the purpose here is to encourage its use when bullying or cyberbullying is involved, schools should welcome kids keeping them in the loop whenever they notice, witness, or otherwise become aware of:

  • Abuse at home (or elsewhere)
  • Concerns about a fellow student (self-harm, suicidal ideation, etc.)
  • Criminal activity (drugs, extortion, theft, vandalism, rape, etc.)
  • Fights
  • General threats to campus safety or the campus environment

Is the System Truly Anonymous?

In a word, no. Anyone who calls or texts the tipline will have their phone number recorded. Typically, though, if the tipster does not want to reveal their identity, it is difficult to know who is behind the tip because the school doesn’t readily have a database of student cell phone numbers to cross-reference (schools typically only have a database of the parent/guardian contact information on file for each student). Googling the phone number also rarely reveals any identifying information unless the student has posted his or her cell phone across the Web and publicly-accessible social media pages. As such, there is definitely a strong measure of privacy in the system.

Other points to remember

  • When responding to students tips via text, be sure to sign your name. Remember, they will not be able to see your actual phone number but instead will see the phone number of the tipline.
  • The school, when responding, should always thank the tipster for the information, commend them for caring about the safety of their community, and remind him or her that it will be kept confidential.
  • Because of FERPA rules, schools should not voluntarily disclose information about certain students in their text interactions with the tipster (e.g., names, personal histories, etc.).
  • Always keep all interactions formal and professional, as they may serve as documentation in a case file or even court proceedings in the future. A school’s point person should never be casual in their texts through this system, even though it is a medium with which we all are extremely comfortable.
  • There can also be follow-up dialogue via text in this process, as the school may request more information from the tipster or the tipster desire to share more information with the school.
  • Students should be reminded that the system should not be abused. They should know this anyway, but sometimes it still needs to be articulated.

In sum, we strongly believe that every school should have a system in place that allows students who experience or observe bullying or cyberbullying (or any inappropriate behavior) to report it in as confidential a manner as possible. It seems obvious that we should be using mediums that youth already prefer. In addition, being able to broach the subject without being forced to reveal one’s identity or do it face-to-face may prove valuable in alerting faculty and staff to harmful student experiences, and help promote an informed response to bring positive change. Just make sure that students know about the system (use posters, messaging strategies, and other creative ways to get it out there!) and try to overcome any qualms they might have about using it.

Finally, please remember that if you decide to pro­vide such a resource to your school community, every complaint should be taken seriously and thor­oughly investigated. Since the use of this system does provide the paper trail I talked about earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your due diligence with all reports to avoid any claims of liability or negligence. If the school responds promptly, and if it is a good experience for the student providing the tip, he or she will let other students know – and the system will be used more. Even better, the student body will be reminded that the school truly cares about them and is implementing progressive measures to make that clear.

Here is our step-by-step guide in PDF format to walk educators through the process of setting up a Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice.

Educator Searches of Private Student Social Media Profiles: The Illinois Experiment

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on January 22, 2015

30719564Last summer, Illinois (somewhat quietly) passed a new bullying law that took effect on January 1, 2015. The law includes language similar to at least 13 other states which makes it clear that schools have the authority to discipline students for cyberbullying that occurs off campus (and outside of a school-sponsored activity), when such behavior substantially disrupts its educational processes or orderly operation. This has been the long-held federal standard and I was happy to see Illinois moving in the right direction (see also, Minnesota’s recent update).

About the time this law was signed by the governor of Illinois, a former educator from that state told me about another aspect of the law that seemed to permit educators to demand passwords to private social media profiles of students suspected of inappropriate online behaviors impacting the school. I looked into it more, and it turns out that this comes from a separate law that actually took effect on January 1, 2014 (over a year ago). The 2015 law perhaps amplified the implications of the earlier provision with its focus on off-campus behaviors. But why did it take so long for the public to notice it?

Illinois Law

The controversial law begins with a provision that appears to expressly prohibit schools from requesting password information from students or parents:

“(a) It is unlawful for a post-secondary school to request or require a student or his or her parent or guardian to provide a password or other related account information in order to gain access to the student’s account or profile on a social networking website or to demand access in any manner to a student’s account or profile on a social networking website.”

But when one reads more closely, the law also seems to create a loophole that would apparently allow educators to demand passwords in special circumstances (or at least not prohibit it):

“(d) This Section does not apply when a post-secondary school has reasonable cause to believe that a student’s account on a social networking website contains evidence that the student has violated a school disciplinary rule or policy.”

So which is it? Can schools request (or demand) this personal information or not?

Federal Law

It is true that students do have different privacy expectations while at school. Courts have allowed school officials to search for weapons or drugs in school-owned lockers, for example. They’ve also supported the school’s ability to “search” a student for drug use by randomly testing student athletes or others involved in extracurricular activities.

In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed school searches of student-owned property at school. The Court specifically examined whether a school official can search a student’s purse when there is reasonable suspicion that the purse contained evidence of a violation of school policy (in the case of T.L.O., cigarettes). The Court affirmed that “Schoolchildren have legitimate expectations of privacy…But striking the balance between [that] and the school’s equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” In short, “The legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.” Ultimately the Court supported the search of the purse, ruling that it was reasonable given what was known.

Student Searches in the 21st Century

I’ve previously analyzed the case law as it relates to searches of student-owned cell phones, and wrote about lessons that can be learned from the 2014 Supreme Court case Riley v. California which restricts law enforcement access to cell phones. All things considered, I think it is safe to conclude that courts are generally inclined to err on the side of privacy, for students and others, when it comes to prying into personal digital data and private profiles. Students do generally have an expectation of privacy when it comes to the content of their private profiles, but exigent circumstances could mean that access to the profile would be warranted. If, for example, a reliable student reports to school officials that a classmate has made a bomb threat online or is talking of suicide, then time is of the essence and I suspect the courts would allow educators or the police to demand the necessary information for their investigation.

But what if a student posts the answers to an exam on a private profile? Or criticizes a teacher or teases a classmate? These behaviors surely “violate a school’s disciplinary rule or policy,” but are they covered by the law?

Last year a Minnesota school agreed to pay $70,000 in damages (without admitting liability) to settle a lawsuit in which they were accused of invading a sixth-grader’s privacy by demanding that she turn over the passwords to her email and Facebook profile. Originally, the student was given detention and forced to write a letter of apology for making disparaging remarks online about an adult hall monitor. When she returned to Facebook to vent her frustration and try to find out “who the F%$#” told on her, she was suspended (in-school) for insubordination. In a later incident, someone reported to the school that this same student had been communicating online with a classmate in a sexually inappropriate way. When interviewed by a counselor at the school, she admitted to saying “naughty” things to the classmate, but that it was off-campus and after school hours. School officials and a police officer then demanded her Facebook and email passwords so they could look into it. She initially refused, but school officials threatened her with detention and she eventually complied.

It’s important to acknowledge that the outcome of this case was a settlement, not a court order. So we really don’t know how a judge or jury would have felt about this. I personally think that the school was well within its rights to discipline the student for the inappropriate online comments about the hall monitor and the subsequent insubordination. Where the school went astray, in my opinion, was when they forced the student to turn over her passwords without evidence of a substantial disruption of the learning environment or an imminent threat to herself or others. It is unreasonable for a school, or police officer, to demand access to private communications absent that standard. If a social media profile is open to the public, however, then it is very likely fair game for anyone to review. But just because schools can look, doesn’t mean they should.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

The Illinois law has gained notoriety at a time when at least a dozen other states have enacted legislation to prohibit employers or universities from demanding passwords from employees or students. If nothing else, Illinois is clearly bucking the trend. That said, this law has apparently been on the books for over a year, and yet I am not aware of any schools that have attempted to apply it.

If I were a parent and a school official demanded that my child turn over the password to their private online profile, I would refuse to do so without a police officer and a warrant. Of course if there was legitimate cause for concern about the safety of my child or another, I would immediately review the profile myself, with my child, to evaluate the potential threat. Relevant information would then be turned over to the authorities as appropriate. I would also remind my children to double-check to make sure that all of their social media profiles are restricted so that only those they accept as friends or followers can view the information (i.e., that they are set to “private”). They should similarly ensure their cell phone is locked with a passcode.

If I were an educator, I would be extremely cautious when it comes to situations where I might invade a student’s privacy. Again, the law does give schools some latitude here, but schools really need to make the case for why the intrusion is necessary given the circumstances. If I had a bona fide concern about the safety of a student or staff member, it would be worth the risk. Short of that, I’m not sure. What is “reasonable” to one person might not be to another. And if that other person is a judge, it could spell trouble for the school. If you are an educator in Illinois who is dealing with the implications of this, or have an example you’d be willing to share, I’d be interested in your thoughts and experiences. I have no doubt that this law will eventually be a challenged. Here’s hoping it doesn’t involve you or your school.

Cyberbullying Activity: Research

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on December 1, 2014

By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

Use this Cyberbullying Research activity to help your students better understand the nature and extent of cyberbullying behaviors.

Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2014). A Leader’s Guide to Words Wound. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Download PDF

You can also download the complete (and free!) Leader’s Guide to Words Wound by clicking here.

Cyberbullying Activity: Laws

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on

By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

Use this activity to help your students learn about laws related to bullying and cyberbullying.

Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2014). A Leader’s Guide to Words Wound. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Download PDF

You can also download the complete (and free!) Leader’s Guide to Words Wound by clicking here.

Cyberbullying Activity: Crossword Puzzle

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on

By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

Use this Crossword Puzzle activity to introduce students to important concepts related to cyberbullying and Internet safety.

Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2014). A Leader’s Guide to Words Wound. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Download PDF

You can also download the complete (and free!) Leader’s Guide to Words Wound by clicking here.

Cyberbullying Activity: Word Find

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on

By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

Use this Word Find activity to introduce students to important concepts related to cyberbullying and Internet safety.

Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2014). A Leader’s Guide to Words Wound. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Download PDF

You can also download the complete (and free!) Leader’s Guide to Words Wound by clicking here.

The Case for Including Intent in a Definition of Bullying

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on November 26, 2014

36725556Last week I presented at the International Bullying Prevention Association’s annual conference in San Diego, CA. This was the second time that I have participated in this event, and both experiences were enjoyable and educational. The attendees (over 700 strong this year) are generally very interested in the work that we are doing at the Cyberbullying Research Center, and the other presenters are uniformly among the best in the business.

The conversations that occur between the formal presentations are just as enlightening and thought-provoking as anything within the scheduled sessions. Talking with attendees and other speakers sparks insights about issues we are working on and allows us to view our research and writings from the perspective of informed others. It was a couple of these conversations that sparked my interest in writing this post.

Right before my first presentation, I got to talking with Stan Davis about how bullying is defined and specifically whether intent was a necessary component. Most definitions include this element, and ours is no different. Specifically, we define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” Like most others, we argue that to be considered bullying, the behavior in question needs to be intentional.

Stan suggested that whether a behavior was deliberate or not was beside the point. If it was hurtful, or if the person doing it should have known that it could have resulted in harm to another, then it is bullying. His position was supported by Elizabeth Englander, another researcher at the conference whose work I very much respect. She added that the problem with including intent as a defining criteria is that it requires teachers in the classroom to get into the heads of students to try to figure out what they were thinking when they did what they did. This is a fair point, though one easy way to determine intent is to see if the behavior was repeated after some initial intervention. If the student is made aware that their behavior is causing harm to another (either by the target, a bystander, or other third party), and yet they continue to behave in the same way, then it’s clearly intentional.

After my presentation, Lori Ernsperger, another speaker who attended my session, came up to me to also discuss whether intent was really a necessary component of bullying. Lori and I chatted briefly about our respective positions on this issue, but because others were waiting to speak with me, we weren’t able to dig into the details enough to clearly explain where each other was coming from. I don’t think that Stan, Elizabeth, and Lori collectively conspired to critique this component of my presentation, so I did feel the need to consider this question further.

That’s why I was happy to receive an email from Lori shortly after the conference with additional information about why she felt it was imperative that we adjust our definition by removing the element of intent. She was particularly concerned with the implications of requiring intent to define something as bullying when it came to behaviors targeting students with disabilities. “Disability harassment,” she argued, “does not consider the intentionality of the bully, only if it is ‘unwelcome conduct.’ When the term ‘willful’ is used for defining bullying it requires schools to have separate policies and definitions for students within protected classes.”

She presented me with a hypothetical incident to consider:

A 16-year-old high school tennis player has a genetic disorder and diabetes. His teammates have been harassing him about going to the nurse’s office and requiring more snack breaks during practice. This goes on for a year. Coaching staff have observed this, but as required by law (FERPA), most school personnel do not know he is a child with a disability. After repeated teasing, he stops going to the nurse and eventually drops out of tennis. This is a clear violation of his civil rights, but the school said it was not “intentional” on the part of the other students (“they were good kids from good homes and did not mean it”) and they did not see this as willful behavior. But is does not matter, it was unwelcome conduct that changed this student’s educational experience. All school personnel should observe and intervene regardless of the intentionality.

First of all, regardless of intent, I agree wholeheartedly with the final sentence in her vignette. School personnel should intervene whether the behavior is defined as bullying or not. One thing is clear, the tennis players were being mean toward their teammate and that should be addressed. But was it bullying? If the students involved in harassing the tennis player for a whole year genuinely didn’t realize that what they were doing was harming the target, then it isn’t bullying. Or, if a reasonable person would have known that the behaviors were causing harm, then it would be intentional and be accurately categorized as bullying. As I have previously written, best friends can say things to each other that appear to be mean or that could unintentionally make someone upset. But are these things really bullying?

As a comparable example, maybe I say something to someone on a repeated basis, just thinking I am being funny, and that person completely ignores or even laughs along with what I am saying. But it turns out that the person is actually very hurt by my comments, yet he never expresses that to me (nor does anyone else). What I am saying may be mean or rude, but it isn’t bullying. Should it be addressed? Of course. Should it stop? Absolutely. If we were students at the same school it would be completely appropriate for a teacher or counselor or whomever to make me aware of the harm that I am causing. At that point, I should definitely apologize and not do it again. If I do repeat it, then that clearly demonstrates willfulness because I was informed of the hurtful nature of what I was saying, but still continued. And that would be bullying.

Lori insisted that the “unwelcome conduct” standard is really what matters. If something is unwelcome, then it is bullying. I don’t think it is that simple. What if I bump into someone in the hallway? Or spill my hot tea on someone’s lap? What if I crash into another vehicle when that person is stopped at a stoplight? These are all clear examples of unwelcome conduct, are they not? Would it be accurate to classify these as bullying—even if they were isolated events and completely accidental? Plus, in order for any of these behaviors to be considered “harassment” in a technical/legal sense, one would have to prove that they were done because of a person’s status (based on race, class, gender, disability, etc.). Harassment is different from bullying. Some bullying behaviors could accurately be classified as harassment, and some harassment could be bullying. But the overlap is not 100%. For example, harassment (again, as formally defined) is always based on a protected status, whereas bullying is not. Harassment could be a singular incident (though often not), whereas bullying is always repetitive (or at least presents an imminent expectation of repetition). I still can’t think of an example of a behavior that should be accurately defined as bullying where intent to cause harm is not present.

The bottom line is that we simply cannot call every harmful or hurtful or mean behavior between teens “bullying.” That dilutes the problem and is confusing to everyone involved. Bullying is a specific and more serious form of interpersonal harm and the term needs to be reserved for behaviors which are repeated and intentional.

That’s what I think. What about you?

Distinguishing Bullying from Other Hurtful Behaviors

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on October 2, 2014

Defining bullyingIn my last post on this blog I wrote about the difficulty in determining when mean behavior crosses the line and becomes bullying behavior. I also discussed the challenge for researchers in trying to quantify the difference. In this post, I’d like to talk about why it is important to establish such a line.

As academics, we love to debate how best to define bullying. Or, at least to call out the limitations in the ways that others do it. I’ve never been one to get too caught up in the definitional debate because I feel that whether a behavior meets someone’s artificially-created criteria for being bullying or not really doesn’t matter all that much. Admittedly, as a researcher I am frustrated by the myriad ways bullying (and especially cyberbullying) is defined, primarily because these discrepancies make comparisons across different studies difficult. But just because something satisfies one scholar’s standards for being classified as bullying is beside the point. We should focus instead on addressing the behavior for what it is. If one student called another student a mean name, or posted an embarrassing picture of another online, or pushed someone in the hallway, it should be addressed. Maybe these incidents are bullying, maybe not. Either way, they need to be dealt with immediately and appropriately.

I’ve begun to shift my thinking a bit when it comes to deliberations about the definition of bullying. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that educators, parents, and other adults who work with youth need to deal with all forms of interpersonal harm when confronted with it. But for a number of reasons, we do need to draw a line in the sand for when a behavior (or series of behaviors) reaches the level of being accurately characterized as bullying. Below I discuss some of these and offer what I believe to be the most important distinguishing features of bullying.

Not All Interpersonal Adolescent Hurtful Behaviors Are Bullying

Many kids say or do mean things to others, but the vast majority of them do not bully. Calling all harmful behaviors bullying discounts the experiences of those who are bullied. As Emily Bazelon (author of Sticks and Stones) has argued, “…when every bad thing that happens to children gets called bullying, we end up with misleading narratives that obscure other distinct forms of harm.” Under most definitions, bullying is much worse than simply being mistreated, pushed, or generally made fun of. To be sure, the difference might simply be in the frequency with which one is targeted. Being pushed in a one-time altercation with a former friend might not be bullying, whereas being pushed by this same person several times over several days, weeks, or months is. Frequency does matter. For example, we were contacted a while back by an adult who recalled his experience of being bullied from over a half century earlier. He wasn’t physically harmed at all, but the names he was incessantly called created psychological scars that never fully healed. Without a doubt, being targeted over and over again, even with relatively mild forms of mistreatment, eventually takes a toll.

Likewise, calling all harmful behaviors bullying may also diminish the seriousness of incidents that are much worse than the term conveys. For example, if a student is attacked on the playground in a one-time incident, this is not bullying. Even if the student is physically beaten so severely that she ends up in the hospital for a week, it’s still not bullying. It is an assault, and should be identified and treated as such. If the assault is linked to other behaviors previously or subsequently perpetrated by the aggressor toward the target, then perhaps it is accurate to define the trajectory of events as bullying. In isolation, a one-time act–no matter how serious–is not bullying.

Implications for Schools

Using bullying to describe all variations of student-on-student harm also has consequences for schools. Recently-passed laws in some states require educators to take certain steps once a behavior is classified as bullying. Well-intentioned or not, these laws force schools into following specific and time-consuming procedures. For example, school administrators in New Jersey are required to initiate a formal investigation within one school day of receiving any report of bullying. The school superintendent must be briefed within two school days. The investigation must be completed within ten school days and include a written report of the incident. The results of the investigation must be reported to the school board at its next meeting. All of this is well and good, and schools would love to direct this much attention to any problems as they arise. The challenge is that they simply have not been given adequate resources to accomplish any of this effectively. It would take an army of administrators to follow through on all of these procedures if every rude, annoying, or even hurtful incident were classified as bullying.

Moreover, schools are increasingly being judged by the number of bullying reports received each year. All reports of bullying in New Jersey schools, for example, must be submitted to the state Department of Education who will then “grade each school for the purpose of assessing its effort” to address these problems. As a result, some school administrators might be encouraged to dismiss actual incidents of bullying–if their numbers start to get too high–for fear of being labeled a “bad school.” My question is, if a school shows a high number of bullying reports/interventions, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, it’s nice to know that students are comfortable reporting the bullying and that schools are taking it seriously by documenting and conducting a formal investigation. But at what point do high numbers cause us to be concerned? In fact, I personally would be more uneasy about a school that reported zero bullying incidents than one that reported quite a few.

Alternatives to Calling Everything Bullying

To counter some of these concerns, some have advocated for abolishing the use of the term bullying altogether and instead suggested that terms such as “harassment” or “drama” are more appropriate. Neither of these alternatives really solves any of the previously-described problems. In many legal circles, for instance, harassment is a specific term reserved to refer to mistreatment that is related to one’s protected status (based on sex, race, color, national origin, disability and actual or perceived sexual orientation). If a heterosexual boy posts an embarrassing picture on Instagram of another heterosexual boy, is it harassment? Not by some legal definitions.

And calling all teen disagreements drama also dilutes the problem. To be sure, there is a lot of background noise in schools these days that could be classified as drama. Being upset with your best friend because of some actual or perceived affront is drama. So is refusing to talk to your sister because she ate the last Pop Tart for breakfast. Most of what teens would call drama would not fall under most definitions of bullying. And nor should it. As danah boyd (author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens) and Alice Marwick have found in their interviews with youth, “teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something.” Referring to a bullying incident as drama allows the aggressor to neutralize their role in the harm. If everyone does these kinds of things, and if drama is just an everyday part of life for teens, then it isn’t that big of a deal and not worth focusing on.

Bullying is deliberate, repeated harm inflicted by one or more toward another who is unable to effectively defend him or herself. Accidentally hurting someone’s feelings is not bullying. Yes, it sometimes can be difficult to determine the intent of person causing the harm, but repeated hurtful actions, especially after being made aware that what was done was wrong, is a clear indication of intent. Similarly, hurting someone one time in an isolated incident is not bullying, although if there is a threat of repetition, the behavior could qualify. Also, posting something online might be a one-time behavior, but the fact that the content is accessible repeatedly means the victimization is likely to continue. And if the hurtful behaviors do continue, or if a student comes to you to tell you that he is being bullied, then clearly he does not have the ability to defend himself.

Recognizing that not all hurtful behavior is bullying is an important step toward addressing this problem. It becomes maybe slightly more manageable. My criteria offered above are just some issues to consider when trying to differentiate bullying from other behaviors. You might have some ideas of your own, and I encourage you to share them. While we might not come to complete agreement on this, we can work together to prevent and effectively respond to all forms of adolescent interpersonal harm, whether appropriately classified as bullying or not.

Deterring Teen Bullying: Dos and Don’ts

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on February 21, 2014

2013_cyberbullying logo_color_b_SQThere’s been a lot of interest lately in passing new bullying and cyberbullying laws. The pressure to pursue these provisions seems to come from the idea that the threat of harsher penalties will deter teens from bullying others. But will they? Deterrence theory is a very popular philosophy within the criminal justice system, and as such serves as the basis for many policies (e.g., mandatory sentences and “three strikes” laws). The basic premise is simple: humans are rational beings who weigh the costs and benefits of any behavior and will ultimately act in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Rational people will therefore be more likely to refrain from deviance when the costs (severe punishment) are increased.

The problem with this perspective is that adolescent brains haven’t yet fully developed to the point where we can assume rationality in the face of unknown or unlikely consequences. Moreover, we often focus too much on formal punishment as a means to compel compliance instead of recognizing other powerful forces that may be even more effective. So what can be done to deter teens from bullying others? Below I offer some basic bullying deterrence dos and don’ts.

Deterrence Don’ts

DON’T increase formal sanctions.  As noted above, a lot of people have been pushing for increased criminal penalties to be leveled against those who participate in bullying. Bills have been passed or proposed in most states (see our summary here) even while legislation has been languishing at the federal level for almost 5 years.  New laws that clarify and support the roles of educators in responding to bullying are helpful, but those that seek to further criminalize are not likely to be effective at preventing the behaviors.

As I have stated before, it is unlikely that new criminal laws will result in more teens being deterred from engaging in bullying. Those who were dissuaded before will still be, but the added threat of increased legal punishment isn’t likely to prevent additional people from participating. The problem is that most teens (and many adults for that matter) simply don’t stop to consider the possible costs prior to participating in a behavior (especially possible criminal consequences). They are usually absorbed in the moment and aren’t thinking about what could happen if they are caught. Plus, the odds are that they won’t be caught (or significantly punished).

DON’T enact zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies require school administrators to apply a specific, generally severe sanction (often suspension or even expulsion) to a student who is found to have participated in some proscribed behavior. These policies were most often originally focused on curbing weapon and drug possession at school, but in recent years they have been expanded to include other forms of violence and bullying. Don’t get me wrong, “zero tolerance” is a fine idea in theory. Educators do want to clearly communicate that they have zero tolerance for weapons or drugs or bullying in their schools and that those who violate this standard are certain to be punished. The problem is that these policies, by definition, do not allow educators to use their discretion to handle situations outside the letter of the policy. Bullying is largely a relationship problem, and educators, working with parents, need to use their knowledge of the situation to apply a reasonable sanction that is more uniquely designed to address the particular problem at hand. One-size-fits-all responses frequently fall short in issues involving teens.

DON’T utilize public shaming. Shame is a powerful force that can be used to encourage conformity and compliance. But when misused, it can result in the exact opposite response.  Historically, societies have used shame to induce guilt among those who behave in ways that are counter to societal norms. Shaming can also have the unintended side effect of severing the emotional bond between the person(s) doing the shaming and the one being shamed.

Australian criminologist John Braithwaite argues that there are two types of shaming: disintegrative (or stigmatizing) and reintegrative. Disintegrative shaming results when society identifies a person as deviant, and figuratively (or even literally) expels that person from the conforming group. Reintegrative shaming occurs when society condemns the behavior, but not the person. In this case we avoid labeling someone “a bully” but instead refer to the specific bullying behaviors that need to stop. It is not the child we are convicting, but their behavior.  Even when done with the best intentions in mind, public shaming is too risky when applied to adolescents whose self-esteem is generally under-developed and fragile.

There have been quite a few recent examples of parents (or educators – see this) publicly shaming their kids to send them (and others) a message about the wrongfulness of their behavior. This approach is misplaced. In my view, parents who publicly shame their kids are doing so primarily because they themselves felt publicly humiliated by the actions of their children and so they feel the need to prove that they are “good” parents by punishing in a public way. While this might seem like a creative method to address the behavior, I believe it could do more harm than good. The importance of the parent-child emotional bond cannot be overstressed, and permanent damage could be done. Praise publicly, punish privately.

Deterrence Dos

DO give students a stake in conformity. The threat of punishment only works if someone has something of value in their life that they would put at risk of losing if punished. For example, earning a bad grade only hurts if a student cares about good grades or is aiming for college or a scholarship. After-school detention is most powerful when a student has something else they really like to do after school that they would miss out on (such as an extra-curricular activity). Taking this a step further, if a man is unemployed, homeless, and broke, the threat of brief incarceration isn’t really enough to stop him from misbehaving. At least in jail he will be given a bed to sleep on and a meal to eat. As Bob Dylan famously sang, “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The best thing we can do for students to deter them from mistreating others is to get them involved in prosocial activities that they really enjoy so that the threat of school sanction or parental punishment holds weight.

Moreover, the punishment doesn’t necessarily have to be serious to have an effect. For instance, at least as of right now, I have a perfectly clean driving record. I have never been pulled over for any moving violation in over 20 years of driving [knocks on wood]. As much as the threat of receiving a modest monetary fine deters me from speeding, my desire to keep my record unblemished is an even stronger incentive, at least for me.

DO connect and interact. Another reason many people refrain from misbehavior is because they don’t want to disappoint the people in their lives that they care about. Prevention is all about relationships. Inasmuch as many teens are not deterred by the threat of formal punishment, they are dissuaded from participation in behaviors that they know their friends, parents, or other valued adults would frown upon. When teens are emotionally attached or socially bonded to others, they internalize their norms and values and do not want to disappoint them by behaving in a way that is contradictory to those principles.

The concept of virtual supervision demonstrates that kids will behave in ways that are consistent with adults they value and respect, even when those valued others are not directly supervising them. For example, if I really value my relationship with my mom, and I know that she would be disappointed in me if she knew that I bullied someone, then I am less likely to bully others, even in situations where she is not present because I am considering how mom might feel if she found out about my behavior. Of course this only works if I have a really great relationship with mom and don’t want to damage that relationship by disappointing her. So the key is developing strong relationships with kids.

And this powerful effect can also work with others who work with young people (educators, church leaders, and law enforcement officers, to name a few). As an example, one time when I was in high school, I drove my ATV across town to some community event. Several minutes after I got there, one of the local police officers arrived and immediately started chewing me out for driving too fast on the city streets. He was yelling at me, saying that after he saw me he had gone to my house and was waiting for me and was going to give me a speeding ticket!  For the record, I really didn’t think I was going that fast. But nonetheless, I was devastated. I was embarrassed and upset that I had disappointed him – not just because he was a police officer, or that he was threatening to give me a ticket, but because he had been my hockey coach the year prior and I had a great relationship with him. I felt terrible. In the end, he didn’t give me a ticket, but from then on I drove very slowly when navigating the city streets on my ATV.

It was a very powerful experience that others can learn from. Take the time to develop a positive relationship with your kids and students. For decades we have known the power of spending just a bit of regular time with students (e.g., 2 minutes a day for 10 days in a row). Learn their names. Give them high-fives as they come off the bus. Show them that you care – because we know you do. It can make all the difference.

DO develop a positive school climate.  A positive school climate is one that stimulates and encourages respect, cooperation, trust, and a shared responsibility for the educational goals that exist there. Educators, students, and everyone connected to the school take ownership of the mission of the school and work together toward a shared vision. If a climate like this is established, everything else seems to fall into place. Research consistently demonstrates that the more positive the climate of the school is, the fewer problems there are with bullying (and cyberbullying). A sense of collective concern is cultivated where students just seem to look out for each other more and believe that the adults in the school are genuinely there to help.

Since schools with better climates overall have fewer bullying incidents, a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges where bullying is something that just doesn’t happen here. If it does, it is addressed and stopped immediately. Students see that and are less inclined to resort to bullying in cases of conflict.

Conclusion

Deterring detrimental behaviors in a society requires more than just passing a new law or cranking up the consequences in existing laws. Considerate understanding of the needs and desires of teens will help us to design an incentive structure that is more likely to be effective. The simple fact is that some teens will not be deterred in their behaviors by the threat of any formal, criminal punishment, no matter how severe it may be. But these same youth could be prevented from bullying others if they have caring relationships with others or are involved in activities that they value.