Over the last decade, the world has shifted into technological gear: everything is going digital first. It’s how concerned citizens receive news, it’s how sports fans receive updates on scores and it’s how people watch movies and read books.
However, this digital-first era has also sparked a shift in how children pick on, haze and bully other children in schools. The physical contact and visible scars that used to be seen in school-aged children have been replaced with electronic intimidation and more buried wounds in what is now called cyberbullying.
The damage caused by cyberbullying could possibly be more dangerous than the damage caused by the first-person altercations of six to 10 years ago, when the majority of current BYU students were going to elementary and middle schools.
“We don’t see kids pushing each other on the playground or down the stairs very much anymore,” said Melissa Flores, the chief civil rights officer with Canyons School District. “What you see is a kid huddled in the corner on his phone or somebody passing around a horribly inflammatory picture or something that is sexually explicit. People think it’s more benign because they’re not physically pushing or yelling or screaming. The real danger of cyberbullying is that those scars are less visible. It’s super easy to see a black eye or ripped clothing or scratches.”
The percentage of children that have reported experiencing cyberbullying has skyrocketed at an alarming rate over the past few years. According to the Cyberullying Research Center, 20 percent of students have reported being bullied electronically, up from just 3.7 percent in 2007. Also, it may be likely a child is a bully and a victim at the same time.
“You see a child being a bully at the same time that he or she is the victim,” said Elizabeth Pratt, a graduate student at the University of Utah mastering in social work. “When they are being bullied, they could feel a lot of pressure and motivation to be bullies themselves.”
Likewise, 13.7 percent of the students have said mean or hurtful comments have been either posted on a social media website or texted to them, which is compared to just 1.6 percent five years earlier.
“We live in a technological age where 9-year-olds have phones,” Flores said. “Kids are given a lot of technology but they’re not instructed as much as they should be on how to use it. It’s also an easy way to do hurtful and harmful things. …When you don’t have to see the effect that it has on that person, it becomes very easy. That’s why it’s so prevalent in schools.”
Utah state law has combated the rise of cyberbullying in two different legislations, the latest in 2009. The policy first defines cyberbullying as “the use of email, instant messaging, chat rooms, pagers, cell phones or other forms of information technology to deliberately harass, threaten or intimidate someone for the purpose of placing a school employee or student in fear of physical harm … or harm to property of the school employee or student.” The policy then requires every school district in the state of Utah to have a policy that prohibits bullying and hazing. However, it is up to the actual district on how they implement this policy.
“We believe that we need to address the problem, and not just throw discipline at it,” Flores said. “We’re trying to teach why it’s dangerous. A child has a right to a public education. We always look to what we can do to educate and inform them on why this is an issue, and try to address that problem rather than just punishing the student for it.”
The Canyons School District in southeastern Salt Lake County is one of the frontrunners of teaching parents the importance of monitoring their children’s use of technology and helping the community curb the dangerous trend of cyberbullying.
“We’re one of the first school districts to lift the ban, if you will, on Facebook and other social media sites to help further education in the school districts,” said Jennifer Toomer-Cook, the district’s chief external communications officer. “We have educational technology specialists to give students the tools they need to use Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging responsibly.”
Flores and the Canyons School District are combining efforts with parents of children who are on both sides of the bullying issue to teach them how to truly curb the bullying problems in the district and throughout Utah.
“One thing parents absolutely have to do is to educate themselves on what their children’s school’s policy is,” Flores said. “They have to sit down with their kids and talk about what things are appropriate and what things aren’t. And then they have to do some real life scenarios. I’ve seen some kids that don’t understand the difference between snitching on somebody and telling on somebody when they need to.”