We began this week’s focus on cyberbullying with a video of Jamey Rodemeyer. Listening to the voice of this young man, who later killed himself due to the pressures of cyberbullying, put this issue into perspective. Unlike many of the issues we will deal with as school librarians, cyberbullying can indeed be a matter of life and death. There is no doubt that this is an issue we must address as educators. Just how to address it, however, is a matter of some debate.
Danah Boyd, in a series of articles on this topic, makes a convincing case that many efforts to educate young people about the dangers of cyberbullying fall on deaf ears. This is true for the simple reason that many educators speak about this issue using language that fails to connect with young peoples’ reality. The simple use of the words “bully” and “victim” is problematic, since most students would be unwilling or unable to see themselves in either of these roles. Instead, many young people experience a gray area of online teasing among peers. When exactly this crosses the line into harassment may not be easy to identify. To address cyberbullying effectively, I’m convinced we should abandon the black and white labeling of bully and victim and focus instead on helping students to analyze the gray area and determine for themselves what words and actions cross the line.
So what would this look like as part of the school library curriculum? I would begin by addressing this issue each year, K-12, spiraling upwards in complexity over time. That may sound like overkill, and it would be if the same lecture-based “don’t be a bully” message were drilled into students each year. But if this issue is addressed creatively, with a careful focus on making it relevant to students’ own experience, then reinforcing it each year helps to build a positive school culture around this issue. Specifically, I would teach about positive and negative online interactions through specific scenarios and examples, gathered whenever possible from the students themselves. I would bring in guest speakers, authors, (thanks for the idea, Erin Bennet!) and older students to share their experiences. Finally, I would help students to recognize the potential for positive online interactions to provide a counterbalance to the teasing and harassment they might see. The story of Daniel Cui, and how his teammates and classmates supported him when he was targeted, provides an inspiring model for how students can take direct positive action online against bullying. This example highlights how the fight against cyberbullying may best be fought by students themselves (with the support or educators, of course) through the very same social media channels and with the very same tools (profile pictures, status updates in facebook, etc.) that are misused when online bullying occurs.
There is so much more to say on this issue. I haven’t even begun to address how educators can support students like Jamey Rodemeyer who have been the targets of online harassment. My hope is that through creative education on this issue, with a particular focus on relevance, and with the fostering of a school culture in which all community members vow to take direct action against online cruelty when they encounter it, there will be fewer Jamey Rodemeyers and more Daniel Cuis.
AASL Standard addressed: 4.3.4 Practice safe and ethical behaviors in personal electronic communication and interaction.