Online School Bullying: Moving Toward Solutions

I still remember my tears from high school. Sometimes, even though it is decades later, they still come out on my pillow. I cringe as I think about the pain so many young people are experiencing today, often with many fewer safe-places and outlets to mitigate the abuse. 

“As the social life of young people has moved onto the internet, so has bullying, with electronic bullying becoming a significant new problem in the past decade,” according to Psychology Today. “Whereas bullying was once largely confined to school, the ubiquity of handheld devices affords bullies constant access to their prey.” Platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat allow perpetrators to send hurtful, ongoing messages to children around the clock. Some sites, such as Instagram, allow messages to be left anonymously.

A look at the problem:

  • Bullying affects all youth, including those who are bullied, those who bully others, and those who witness bullying. The effects of bullying may continue into adulthood.
  • There is not a single profile of a young person involved in bullying. Youth who bully can be either well connected socially or marginalized, and may be bullied by others as well. Similarly, those who are bullied sometimes bully others.
  • Solutions to bullying are not simple. Bullying prevention approaches that show the most promise confront the problem from many angles. They involve the entire school community—students, families, administrators, teachers, and staff such as bus drivers, nurses, cafeteria and front office staff—in creating a culture of respect. Zero tolerance and expulsion are not effective approaches.
  • Bystanders, or those who see bullying, can make a huge difference when they intervene on behalf of someone being bullied.
  • Studies also have shown that adults can help prevent bullying by talking to children about bullying, encouraging them to do what they love, modeling kindness and respect, and seeking help.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services www.stopbullying.gov

Research shows that students in grades six through nine are particularly vulnerable to bullying at school and online, according to the Boise State University website. The consequences of bullying are magnified for students in low-income and under-resourced areas. The research also shows bullying negatively affects both victims’ and witnesses’ mental health, and teaching bystanders through easily accessible age-appropriate training programs can reduce harm for all involved.

Two educators are moving on a solution:

Aida Midgett. Photo by Patrick Sweeney

Aida Midgett, Boise State College of Education professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education and Diana Doumas, professor and director for the Institute for the Study of Behavioral Health and Addiction, received $1.7 million from the National Institutes of Health to translate their trademarked anti-bullying intervention program into a technology-based format that can reach students in more schools, including in rural areas and to speakers of both English and Spanish.

Midgett developed and trademarked the program in 2020 as a low-cost, direct way to teach students to recognize bullying and how to intervene. The program is referred to as STAC and stands for, “stealing the show,” “turning it over,” “accompanying others,” and “coaching compassion.”

The program reduces time and labor-intensive training for already overburdened staff in schools.

Based on research done in the first two stages of the project, Midgett and Doumas plan to design the final technology-based version to be a user-centered, media-rich dual-language online training that administrators can scale to a large number of middle schools at a relatively low cost.

“The original program was designed to teach students strategies that are intuitive and age-appropriate so they can feel empowered to intervene when they witness bullying,” Midgett said. “The technology-based program has the potential to reach more students, particularly those in rural and low-income communities.”

Diana Doumas. Photo by Patrick Sweeney

In this time of draconian cuts to educational funding, I’m glad that this initiative is geared toward reaching communities who need it the most. “Bullying carries the implicit message that aggression and violence are acceptable solutions to problems when they are not,” the Psychology Today staff notes. “Cooperation and the peaceful resolution of differences support an increasingly interconnected world. Bullying not only harms its victims but it harms the perpetrators themselves. Most bullies have a downwardly spiraling course through life, as their aggressive behavior interferes with learning, holding a job, and establishing and maintaining intimate relationships.”

“For the longest time, in the research literature, we thought there was just one type of bully: a highly aggressive kid that had self-esteem issues that may come from a violent home or neglectful home,” says Dorothy Espelage, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Researchers’ picture of the typical school bully has become more nuanced in recent years. 

In fact, there’s such a big crossover between school bullying and cyberbullying that some researchers argue they are becoming one and the same – especially now that children often have their phones with them in class. “In my research it was found that many times school bullies continue the harassment online,” says Calli Tzani-Pepelasi, an investigative psychology lecturer at the University of Huddersfield. “They may be sitting next to each other but prefer to bully each other through social media, as that way their actions can be viewed by more and they feel a false sense of fame.”

“Because this program will be delivered through a technology-based format, it has the potential to have a significant impact on reducing bullying and the associated negative consequences in schools that do not have the resources to purchase in-person programs,” Doumas said.

Hopefully, some of the pain that many children silently bear, will be lessened. 

Midgett developed and trademarked the program in 2020 as a low-cost, direct way to teach students to recognize bullying and how to intervene. The program is referred to as STAC and stands for, “stealing the show,” “turning it over,” “accompanying others,” and “coaching compassion.”

The program reduces time and labor-intensive training for already overburdened staff in schools.

Based on research done in the first two stages of the project, Midgett and Doumas plan to design the final technology-based version to be a user-centered, media-rich dual-language online training that administrators can scale to a large number of middle schools at a relatively low cost.

“The original program was designed to teach students strategies that are intuitive and age-appropriate so they can feel empowered to intervene when they witness bullying,” Midgett said. “The technology-based program has the potential to reach more students, particularly those in rural and low-income communities.”

Research shows that students in grades six through nine are particularly vulnerable to bullying at school and online. The consequences of bullying are magnified for students in low-income and under-resourced areas. The research also shows bullying negatively affects both victims’ and witnesses’ mental health, and teaching bystanders through easily accessible age-appropriate training programs can reduce harm for all involved.

“Because this program will be delivered through a technology-based format, it has the potential to have a significant impact on reducing bullying and the associated negative consequences in schools that do not have the resources to purchase in-person programs,” Doumas said.

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