girl on her phone in the bedroom

In this opinion article, Rick Phillips (the Executive Director and founder of Community Matters) urges parents and educators to address issues of bullying in a proactive way that emphasizes community and character.

Cyberbullying is a pervasive problem. And its impact is of significant concern for parents and educators of younger children. Cyberbullying is viral, and it can be crueler than a put down or a physical blow. The perpetrators are younger, meaner, and often anonymous, leaving no trail to follow.

A significant chorus of voices is calling for more laws, rules, and harsher punishments to codify and prohibit cyberbullying — what we call an “outside in” approach. That’s not a wrong move. However, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that this battle will be won in the legislatures, school board meeting rooms, or courts. We can’t legislate compassion or responsibility. And we can’t punish kids into being better people.

Yes! Clear rules and expectations about Internet behavior and cell phone usage should be set on campus. Parents should be encouraged to actively monitor e-communications at home. Technology should be employed to stop inadvertent or purposeful misuse of electronic communication on school campuses.

However, the evidence strongly suggests that tough “zero tolerance” policies and “firewall security” measures alone won’t deter students from acts of cyberbullying and electronic aggression. We need to step back and take an ecological “inside out” approach, one that recognizes the power of youth to influence their peers and capitalizes on their capacity to be social norm changers.

While adults establish rules, it’s the students who set the norms on campus as to what’s “cool” or not and what’s socially acceptable among their peers. Students are in the best position to monitor their friends’ and classmates’ actions: they see, hear, and know things that adults don’t and can intervene in ways that adults can’t.

But before we can expect our children to create a responsible community, we need to begin by equipping them with the knowledge to better discern right from wrong. We need to educate them about the impact of gossiping and rumor mongering and teach them that being a bystander and watching someone get hurt is being an accessory to a “crime” — and not very different from pushing the “send” button themselves.

There’s more. We also have to wake up the courage of our young people to act. We need to invest in our children, teaching them communication and intervention skills so that they will prevent, report, and stop bullying and cyberbullying among their peers.

Educators must understand and capitalize on the social power that students have with each other and harness that power through student-centered programs like Safe School Ambassadors (SSA). SSA equips and empowers socially influential youth with the skills to prevent and stop harmful behaviors in a safe and effective, peer-to-peer way. Over time, the actions of these “alpha” youth create a social “tipping point” –“each one teach one” — the power of the few to influence the many. Imagine a “queen bee” speaking up when some popular girls decide to make a classmate a target of bullying.

When young people are engaged, equipped, and empowered to speak up, bullying decreases and school climate improves. The collective voices of our young people can inspire change, strengthening social responsibility and saving lives. This is the social vaccine and approach that can prevent and eradicate the acts of cruelty and electronic harassment that we all want to see stopped.

For more information, contact Community Matters at

Audrey S.

Audrey managed the education products at Common Sense Education, with a primary focus on our digital citizenship program. She previously oversaw the marketing outreach to our educator community. Prior to joining Common Sense, Audrey worked at the San Francisco SPCA animal hospital and shelter. She received her degree in Marketing from San Francisco State University.