What Role Should Schools Play in Teens' Digital Social Life?

February 26, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom, Parents and Families

After a number of teen suicides related to bullying – and, more specifically, online harassment – the issue of cyberbullying, and how to put an end to it, has been on just about every educator and school official’s mind. What role schools should play, and whether they should be held accountable, has been the subject of fierce debate. The issue has become even more relevant since the 2011 release of the controversial documentary Bully, which outlines the events leading up to and following the suicide of 17-year-old Tyler Long.

The film, as described by Slate’s senior editor Emily Bazelon, “unquestioningly blames bullying for Tyler’s death, and takes the side of the Long family in blaming the school district for not doing enough to prevent it.” Her comments, as well as hesitations voiced by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP) and the lawsuit (now dismissed) Long’s family filed against their son’s school, have helped fuel the debate around school involvement and accountability in bullying, cyberbullying, and teen suicide. What’s the role of schools, educators, and administrators in mediating bullying and cyberbullying behavior, even when they occur off of school grounds or in online spaces?

Bazelon has written quite a bit about the issue of online bullying, and has written about the film and the subsequent legal case for She also just published a new book titled, “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” and answered some of these questions in a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross:

We don't make schools responsible for all the stuff that kids do at the movies or on the beach or walking down the street, and yet if there's a cruel thread on Facebook or Twitter or a bunch of mean harassing texts go around, it's very typical for parents to bring those into the school and ask for help because they naturally feel that since it's among students, the school should have some role. I think it's clear that schools can help kids and parents talk through these situations. What I think is much trickier is whether they can really take on the role of punishing, and ... are schools really set up to police all this behavior, and do we really want them to play that role?

The boundaries between advocating, policing, and punishing are, just as Bazelon says, “tricky,” and many schools’ cyberbullying awareness and suicide prevention programs are still too new for us to know how effective they might be. And as she points out, many educators are still learning to navigate new technologies and understand the comprehensive effects they have on students’ performance in school, behavior outside the classroom, and general social development.

It’s important to note that cyberbullying, obviously, doesn’t always lead to suicide. As the AFSP stated, there is an “increasingly pervasive media narrative” that depicts youth suicide as a normal and rational response to being bullied, which is actually quite an exaggeration. Many instances of cyberbullying, sometimes referred to under the blanket label “drama,” are more subtle forms of harassment.

Bazelon cited examples from her reporting of teens spreading rumors online or creating mean-spirited Facebook profiles to mock their peers. She also explained that it is relatively common for students perpetrating the offense to write off their actions as jokes, or to fail to see the gravity behind them. We also know that developmentally, teenagers are less likely to think before they act, and often have poor impulse control. Bazelon attributes this mean behavior, in part, to the lack of empathy students have for one another, and said that, at times, the students’ dismissive attitudes toward their victimized peers was “chilling.”

According to Bazelon, however, kids can learn compassion. "It wasn't that they were incapable of empathy,” said Bazelon. “It was much more that they were in a culture in which they were being encouraged to be cruel to another kid to enhance their own status instead of really letting their feelings of empathy for her have an outlet."

Many educators and administrators are working hard to change these types of environments, which is why we designed a toolkit full of free online resources to help them.  The “culture” that Bazelon mentions is prevalent in many schools, and this is where bullying thrives both in the classroom and in online social spaces. Bazelon's discussion of how experts at places like Facebook and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are also working to stop bullying is also very interesting. 

As a call to action encouraging communities to stand up against bullying, both online and off, most communities and educators have applauded Bully. The AFSP says “We strongly support the film’s aim in exposing what bullying looks and feels like for the far-too-many young people who are affected by it – to make our schools safe and welcoming of all youth.”

To that effect, the people behind the film have launched “The Bully Project,” a toolkit for educators on how to handle bullying in schools, including how to recognize it. “Many of us are still learning how to recognize and effectively respond to bullying in school, online and in our communities,” the website says.

The kit provides information to help schools plan a film screening of their own. There’s also an online community where those who have seen or screened the film with students can share their responses. You can also download a guide to the film designed to “foster empathy and action in schools” is available online to members of Facing History and Ourselves (PDF). Membership is free!

Should schools be held accountable for policing cyberbullying? How responsible do you feel for your students’ activity outside of the classroom? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.