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Addressing Cyberbullying as a School Leader

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We welcome expert Catherine Teitelbaum, Chief Trust and Safety Officer of the Ask.fm user community,  as our guest blogger on cyberbullying.

New apps and social media sites seem to crop up and gain popularity with our students overnight, leaving us adults sometimes shaking our heads trying to keep up with the latest and greatest in technology. Students' excitement over using these apps can be overshadowed when cyberbullying occurs, leaving many students to feel helpless, confused, embarrassed or angry. Not to fear! As in other areas of a student's development, educators on the front lines can play an integral role in helping teens and their families make healthy choices as they navigate what happens on these new apps and sites. Bullying isn't a new issue for educators to handle but the added element of technology in "cyberbullying" can confuse the problem for school leaders.

October is Bullying Prevention Month but bullying happens every single day, year round, both on and offline. Given the urgency and importance when instances of cyberbullying happens within your school community, it is critical that your school has a plan in place that includes collaboration with the impacted students, their parents and school staff.

Here are a few tips to help school leaders feel informed when talking with students, their families and school staff about difficult issues that may arise online, specifically bullying:

1. Share the mic: And give students a voice. What better way to learn what devices, apps or sites are most popular among students than from the students themselves? Student advisory boards are an effective way of getting insight into the latest apps and online trends on campus, as well learning the ways students may be exploiting them. By continually welcoming student thoughts and input on these matters, administrators can better determine which strategies and solutions are most effective for their community.

2. Create a safe zone: Encourage an open environment for discussion. First and foremost, show students they're in a safe environment to discuss issues about and happening on social media. Offer your help and support if bullying occurs. Whether it's a dedicated counselor or a student ambassador, have someone there for your students to turn to and who can listen to student issues, before offering specific guidance. 

3. Define it: Have a system in place to distinguish what cyberbullying looks like. At the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying is defined as "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices." Not every problem between peers can be counted as "bullying," so school leaders must distinguish instances of a hurtful joke gone wrong to repeated online harm that requires formal action from the school.

4. Stay in the know: Inform students - and faculty - about safety, reporting and blocking tools. Most social media networks offer a variety of safety and reporting tools to combat bullying and other inappropriate behavior. Make sure students and faculty know about those tools and how to report inappropriate or cyberbullying behaviors. And don't worry; reporting is almost always anonymous so no one will know who reported the incident. If a student is repeatedly being harassed by a specific person let them know blocking them from his or her account is an option. In California a new Helpline for Schools is being tested. If you need help reporting to a specific app or site, take advantage of the support available at icanhelpline.org

5. Report it: Most schools aren't trained on processes for handling or investigating specific online incidences, so have a protocol in place for faculty to know how to "collect evidence" and put together a proper report. Reports should feature screen shots both on desktop and mobile devices, user IDs and detailed statements from everyone involved, among other details. Reports are also helpful in determining next steps if the situation requires escalation to local authorities.

6. With great social media posts comes great responsibility: Today's digitally native teens often don't distinguish online social activity as something separate from how they present or communicate offline - a recent study found that 79 percent indicate they rarely say things online they regret. Unlike a gossip session at the mall, the choices teens make online can be permanent and have lasting consequences, so parents and schools need to foster an open dialogue with teens on these risks. Frequent, informal check-ins and reminders about this responsibility, along with things like highlighting relevant examples when they arise, are powerful and effective ways to drive the message home.

These are just a few tips to keep in mind as educators navigate the ever-changing world of social media. It's important to remember that every community is different and may require different programs and strategies. For more information, resources and tips on how to address cyberbullying and other issues from a wide range of experts, visit the Ask.fm Safety Center.

As Chief Trust and Safety Officer, Catherine Teitelbaum oversees all safety-related product, policy, and operational initiatives for the global Ask.fm user community, bringing more than 17 years of experience in project delivery, governance alliance, and process improvement to Ask.fm. Ms. Teitelbaum has served as a key contributor on several leading digital safety taskforces, as well as the Vice-Chair of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and provided testimony before the Congressional Child Online Protection Act Commission in her career-long commitment to establish safer online practices for all web users. Before working in technology, Ms. Teitelbaum was an Elementary and Middle School teacher and K-8 Technology Coordinator.


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