Focus on Bullying: Educators, parents try to control increase in cyberbullying
Editor's note: This is part of The Daily Times' five-part series on bullying. The series started on March 29, and the final installment will be published April 12. Read previous installments at daily-times.com.
BLOOMFIELD — As the ubiquity of social media continues to grow, cases of cyberbullying also rise, forcing parents and educators to work harder to learn about the latest technology students are using.
Cyberbullying is "bullying that takes place using electronic technology," such as social media sites, text messages and websites, according to StopBullying.gov, a site managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
During her lunch period on Thursday, a Bloomfield High School junior shared her experience as a victim of cyberbullying. Cyrene March's story involves Ask.FM, a social media site in which users send one another questions, sometimes anonymously.
March said several people pretended to be her on the site and spread lies about her.
"There was a lot of people mimicking me and saying I was obsessed with certain people, and they wanted to fight me," March said. "It ended up to where I went to Burger King, and people cornered me and were going to jump me, but I had my friends walk me out."
March said she doesn't know who was involved in the incident, which was investigated by both school staff and law enforcement.
In 2011, the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey added a question asking students if they had been electronically bullied in the last year. That year, 13.2 percent of students surveyed statewide reported being victims of cyberbullying. The survey found females were more likely to be electronically bullied, with 18.5 percent of girls reporting cyberbullying, compared to 8.2 percent of boys.
Cyberbullying trades in physical attacks and speech for a more psychological and emotional kind of torment, said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. With cyberbullying, gossip can spread virally through a student body in hours.
Students who engage in cyberbullying feel like they have more power and freedom to do what they want, explained Hinduja, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.
"Anonymity gives kids the power to say whatever they want, things they would never say face-to-face," Hinduja said.
And, Hinduja said, it's easy for people to dismiss the problem.
"They think, 'It's cyberspace, turn off your phone and go outside,' but, of course, that doesn't stop the problem from happening," she said.
For school districts, this form of bullying adds a new wrinkle to bullying prevention efforts.
Bloomfield High School Principal Cody Diehl said evidence of cyberbullying can be deleted or destroyed and the actions often take place off school grounds with students' personal property, all of which can make it difficult for school administrators to respond to.
"On Saturday when it's going on, or whenever it's going on, and it spills into school, it's really difficult," he said. "Because you get ... people (who) say, 'It's not your business because it didn't happen in your school.'"
Farmington Police Department Detective Derek Booker said one idea to mitigate cyberbullying is to get parents involved, an idea echoed by both Hinduja and Diehl. Parental involvement can play a huge role in dealing with cyberbullying, particularly as students learn to navigate social media, he said.
"If parents are engaging their children, their children are less likely to engage in those behaviors and less likely to become a cyberbully if they see their actions," Booker said.
As a member of the police department's school resource officer program, Booker teaches classes for the community on cyberbullying and how to report incidents to law enforcement.
Booker also said parents need to talk with their children about what cellphone apps and social media sites they use.
"It can turn into a good conversation. It's not about spying on your kid," Booker said. "You don't have to grab their phone and start going through it. (Parents) can ask, 'Show me how it works,' because (children) are ahead of us."
Another step parents can take is getting their children's passwords to social media accounts, as well as the passcode to their phones.
Booker also suggests students exercise discretion when sharing phone numbers and approving friend requests from people they don't know.
Students who receive threats on social media can also report that to the sites themselves. If cyberbullying incidents escalate, it may be time to reach out to school staff or law enforcement. If that situation arises, Booker suggests taking screenshots of the threatening messages.
"If we don't have that, we can't prove it took place," Booker said. "A lot of social media sites that are used for cyberbullying are very (tight lipped) about releasing information after the user has deleted it."
If a specific and credible threat is made, law enforcement may become involved, Booker said.
"If someone sent a text message to somebody saying, 'I'll beat you up at school tomorrow,' that could fall under the letter of the law," he said.
Like with traditional bullying, Diehl said, educators need to build relationships with students to open the lines of communication so students feel comfortable reporting cyberbullying.
"We're trying to build relationships, and we're trying to co-exist in this system where you jam 800 teenagers in a building for eight hours a day," he said. "It's about what tools can we give students to cope with it, not only the victim but the bully themselves."
As for March, the teenager said she learned that the bullies who harassed her fed off of her response, and that led her to change her behavior.
"Just don't feed off of it. Just let them doing their thing," March said. "Leave them alone."
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