Cyberbullying In Classrooms That Use Digital Tools: Keeping an Eye Out

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This article was originally published on Jeremy Riel’s Medium blog

In the age of social media, youtube accounts, and messaging apps, people have been able to connect in far more ways than years past. However, new forms of communication have brought new tools for bullies to hurt others. As teachers in modern, digitally driven learning contexts, we must keep our eye out for new types of antisocial behavior that can be hurtful and damage students’ abilities to learn.

Known also as trolling and griefing in various online circles, bullying on the web has a powerful influence over students. The spread of gossip and negativity can really hurt a student both in an out of classrooms. In fact, cyberbullying isn’t limited to just students — teachers can face it as well! As internet technologies have proliferated, bullies have found new domains to pester and hurt others. With anonymity on the web and a greater opportunity to expand learning to outside of the classroom, both internal and external bullying can negatively influence learning opportunities, as well as hurt students in more ways than just their scholastic achievement.

New technologies, antisocial behavior

As new communications technologies have taken over education and students’ personal lives over the last 10 years, the landscape of bullying has also changed. Although bullying has been around for as long as anyone can remember, the web age has amplified its ways of reaching students and potential for harm.

Classic forms of cyberbullying, such as negative comments to others, are amplified in online spaces. They tend to persist past the classroom because they can “jump” to other apps that students use as students communicate with each other outside of the traditional classroom walls. In other words, bullying can happen in classroom-sponsored apps, as well as those that students use every day. With social media, damaging gossip and rumor creation can spread like wildfire and cause miserable experiences for victims. We gain many new opportunities with digital technologies, but we as educators must also be aware of the types of negative activities that can occur with these tools.

Keeping an eye out for bullying with digital learning tools

There are many things to keep an eye out for when you use certain pedagogical elements within your classroom activities. Bullying behavior can hide from teachers sights and is often obfuscated by bullies to prevent any recourse. However, there are some things to watch for in common activities using digital resources.

Feedback and collaborative work. Watch for negative, not-helpful comments from students when they participate in a feedback-giving activity or collaborative project. It’s important to make sure you spot unproductive comments as they happen. This would require teachers to see the feedback that students provide. Comments that are not private to the teacher would work best, but that doesn’t stop students from talking about others’ work in non-school apps that they use.

Social networks. Facebook, Twitter, EdModo, and many other networks are popping up in classrooms. Because it is so easy to share information, it can also be easy to spread gossip and rumors. Keep an eye on the channels being used by your students for class work. Also, it’s not just text — hurtful photos, videos, and audio can all be easily shared on social networks. Students are also likely on networks that you can’t monitor, so this may spill over to classroom projects as well. Students also can use social networks and messaging apps to open “backchannels” during class, allowing them to have conversations during formal class time. This is hard to monitor, but teachers should try to be aware if conversations and sharing of information is happening, especially with apps that are formally brought into class projects.

Private messages. Many apps provide the opportunity to send private (PMs) or direct messages (DMs). These could provide opportunities for bullying behaviors because teachers can’t see. It’s important to know if apps you use have any features where students can send private messages. Although teachers won’t likely be able to see messages, it will give a clue to watch for any discussion among students about negative things being shared privately.

Anonymity. A challenge of the web that has empowered cyberbullying is the anonymity that some apps provide. Try to find apps that provide some kind of identification so you can know who is posting what. If participation from the public is allowed, try to limit it or diminish the negativity that anonymized posts can provide. This may require some moderating time on a teachers’ part to make sure that discussion and sharing remain positive and constructive.

Things to do if you spot bullying in digital spaces

Know what you can control. When you use a new web-based technology in your classroom, you should learn what is public versus private, including if your students can send private messages to each other in the tools you use. Also, just because you have control over certain limitations in the “official” tools you use, you may not have complete control over how your students interact. Your students will likely use secondary apps of their own to communicate, so it is wise to have an idea of what kinds of apps your students use.

Set rules for moderation. You should also find out what kinds of controls you have on individual and group accounts. Although the most open policies can do wonders for organic conversation and group dynamics, some controls may become necessary if you witness students being mean to each other. These types of controlling actions are typical of moderators in an online forum. In addition, many websites that offer social or other interactive functions have established rules of conduct that determine what kinds of behavior are allowed. It may be wise to set rules of your own with your students ahead of time for things such as language, mean behavior to others, and where the line between productive disagreement and bullying is drawn.

Control what you can. As a teacher, you have some control over the activities that your students do. If you spot internal bullying within your class in online spaces, do what you would do if it were face-to-face: take it seriously and put an end to opportunities for bullying. With digital tools, this may involve locking down some of the functions on the tools you use or altering the privacy settings for some users. For an internal bully, schools may also have certain disciplinary procedures that should be followed. Consult your school for what should be done when you observe bullying behavior in your class.

Don’t feed the trolls. Digital “trolls” live on the web and seem to only take joy in others’ misery. One of the primary rules of internet interaction is “don’t feed the trolls,” or don’t do anything to fuel the interaction with a negative participant. This is especially true if the participant is anonymized or not a part of your classroom. If you can, try to block or close off your activities from potential trolls. However, some activities are more beneficial if activity is public (such as crowdsourcing or sharing one’s work), so it is good to know what could be possible if you open work up for public interaction. Learning how to properly deal with the trolls on the web will likely also become a critical digital skill for success in the web-based world.

Resources for learning more about confronting cyber-bullying

What do you think?

Let me know what you’re thinking! What are your thoughts on cyberbullying? Are there any tips for spotting negative behavior or concerns you have regarding bullying with digital tools used in classrooms? — tweet me at @jeremyriel and let me know what’s on your mind. I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.