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What Do Students Think About Cyberbullying?

How one teacher helps her students unpack what cyberbullying is, what it isn't, and what they can do about it.

Jeff Knutson | December 9, 2019

Anytime someone is mean online, does that count as cyberbullying? And how is cyberbullying different from what we might call, for lack of a better term, regular old in-person bullying? These are great questions for our students to be thinking about -- especially when they're learning about cyberbullying or digital citizenship.

To find out what kids think about these issues, I visited Cathy Montag's fifth grade classroom in San Ramon, California. On the day of my visit, the class was using the Common Sense Education digital citizenship lesson Is It Cyberbulling?, and they were kind enough to let me sit in and observe.

Listening to her students share their thoughts and personal experiences was an eye-opening look into how kids today think about cyberbullying as well as other types of online meanness. As the school day ended and her students filed out the door, Cathy and I sat down to chat. I wanted to know what she thought about the lesson and why she feels cyberbullying is important for elementary school-age students to discuss in school.

Jeff: Have any bullying or cyberbullying issues come up in your classroom or school before?

Cathy: Yeah, I think sometimes the kids don't necessarily have a clear idea of what bullying really is. But it definitely happens. And I think it happens without people knowing that they're doing it.

J: I noticed a focus on jokes and joking around that seemed important to your students.

C: Oh, totally. The thing this year is all about roasting. And there was a time earlier in the year where kids were roasting each other. But then the line got crossed, and then they got upset and angry with each other. We even talked about it then, like, Think about what you're saying to each other. Would you want someone to say that to you? There's an important lesson on empathy here. At some point there's a line between being funny and then just being rude or disrespectful. So it's definitely important to have these conversations with students.

J: The video and the lesson both get into the power dynamics related to bullying and cyberbullying. Why do you think that seemed to resonate so much with your students?

C: One of the kids was saying that bullies have more freedom. So I wanted to have a conversation with them about how [someone] might feel like they have power. But do they really? And does [being bullied] make you powerless?

I think [for kids to] understand the "why" is really important. Why are these people doing this? Maybe they've got something going on in their life. You ultimately have a lot of control over you and how you feel and how you spend your time. And if somebody is spending their time doing that to you, maybe they don't have a lot of control in their life, and [bullying] is where they try to have control.

J: It seems like online culture is a really powerful force for kids this age. Do you see the classroom as sort of a keeper of reality?

C: It really is. Because what do they do when they go home? They just log on. And part of me feels really responsible. We use Seesaw, which I love because it's kind of like they're practicing in social media. I approve things before they post. And if I don't approve it, we have a conversation about it. I'm not encouraging kids to be kind online just because it sounds like the right thing to do. I take that opportunity to say, Hey, this is why this is important or This is why I couldn't approve your post or your comment. Hopefully they'll take the feedback and think about it later on. They're learning certain behaviors just from miscellaneous people online. They really need somebody to keep them grounded.

That's also why I dropped the line [into the lesson], You're not supposed to be on Instagram [at your age]. But the reality is that they are, and they tell me, Oh, you just put in any birthday or any name [to get an account]. And so that's another conversation. I think having that reality check is important.

J: In the lesson, you asked the kids to think about if someone could be a bully, but only in a particular situation. Sort of this question of identity versus behavior. What did you think about how they responded to that?

C: I was really glad that they said, No, I'm not gonna think about them as a bully forever -- that's not who they are. I want them to get to the point of [thinking] there's more to a person than, You're a bully. [People who bully] actually have feelings, they have interests, they're human just like the rest of us. And I loved how the kids said that they can change. Anytime you can emphasize the fact that people are human, I like keeping them grounded in that. It’s important, and there's the obvious tie-in to empathy there.

J: What was your goal in using Padlet in the lesson? I noticed you let them be anonymous.

C: I wanted to sort out the different questions, and I wanted commenting to be open because I like the agree and disagree part. I wanted them to be able to comment and respond and kind of have a back-and-forth if necessary. But I also wanted them to feel comfortable enough to say what they need to say without bringing the attention to themselves. It's not about who says what -- we're really just looking at the information there, and I wanted them to see everybody's posts. I feel like sometimes when they're on their own and they have their own space, they elaborate a little bit more.

And you know, they've seen me [moderating] the other backchannel. It was delete, delete, delete. They know that stuff gets deleted. They know I'm watching, but at the same time, I think there's a level of trust, too. As an educator, you have to have that with your students. You're not going to be as successful with your lesson if kids are worrying that you're going to call them out on what they said on Padlet.

J: Do you feel like having the conversation in class is giving those kids that need this conversation a space for that?

C: Yes, it does. And I think it's good to have a safe space to just talk about this. Like, tell me about some weird things that have happened to you and how did you respond? And I think we need to be open to what the kids say and not be judgmental. And [expose] them a little bit, too: Here are some things that are going on, here's something to look out for, and here are some things that you could do if you see this happening. It's an important job for us, to have a little bit of influence in getting them to make the right choices and be safe.

And that's actually part of why I like to break up the lessons into multiple days, because then they're hearing it a few different times. I'm excited to continue tomorrow. I sent some of the family resources home with them today, so I'll be curious to see what kind of conversations they have with their families.

J: Thanks so much for having me!

C: Thank you for visiting our classroom today! Like we talked about, I think these lessons are so important and relevant to our students' lives.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.