When Sara first discovered Ask.fm, she thought it was a great social website.
She posted poems, song lyrics and observations and asked other anonymous users to comment, hoping for positive feedback. But soon she drew the attention of someone intent on bullying her, for whatever reason, and the hateful comments began.
At one point, the bully told Sara to “do the world a favor” and just kill herself.
This is the world of cyberbullying that is at our children’s fingertips.
Ask.fm, Kik, Omegle, Snapchat, Instagram … the list of social media sites is endless and teens are flocking to them because they are almost completely parent-free.
In an effort to be proactive about the issue, the diocese has sponsored numerous seminars to help schools understand cyberbullying. Beth Brewer, Ed.D., has spoken to principals and teachers several times, offering tips on how to educate themselves, their students and the parents.
School officials point out that Catholic schools are, by their nature, anti-bullying communities. They are institutions that teach respect, Gospel values of acceptance, and reaching out to those in need, said Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, diocesan secretary for education and faith formation. They surround the day in prayer, and teach students every day to love their neighbor.
Experts said the most promising approach in bullying prevention involves the entire school community in creating a culture of respect — students, families, administrators, teachers, and staff, including bus drivers, nurses, and those in the cafeteria and front office.
Sister Pam said respect is strongly emphasized in diocesan schools, resulting in fewer problems, especially in regard to severe bullying.
But kids will be kids, and all schools must deal with instances of exclusion and teasing. Statistics show that traditional forms of bullying are still more common than cyberbullying, but the latter is more harmful and impactful because of how fast it spreads, the number of people it reaches, and its permanence (puresight.com/Cyberbullying).
Experts encourage parents and school officials to work together on all forms of bullying, because even though cyberbullying rarely happens at school, the effects of it can spill into the classrooms and hallways.
“Schools can no longer pretend that this isn’t happening,” Brewer advised in her lecture. “Schools can no longer remove themselves from ownership of this behavior.”
She encourages educators to create a culture of caring, to promote digital citizenship, and to have open communication about the issue.
Roseann Tracy, principal of Blessed Sacrament in Charleston, said they address the topic head-on in a variety of ways, such as writing and acting out skits where the children play all the roles: bully, victim, active bystander and passive bystander. She said it helps them understand the nuances and how they can respond.
Tracy also encourages parents to be proactive in checking their children’s electronic devices, and to know what social media sites they visit and monitor their interaction.
“I think it’s a parent’s responsibility to stay a step ahead of their children,” she said. “They do that with schoolwork, the same is true for technology.”
A good site for parents in need of quick education is www.bewebsmart.com. It recently featured facts about a site called Omegle, whose tag line is “Talk to strangers!”
Then there’s Snapchat, which teens love because they can take a picture of anything and it will be deleted 1-10 seconds later, giving the illusion of safety. But people can screenshot the image, or use SnapHack, which saves it without the sender knowing.
Brewer cautions users against the false security of “delete.” Metadata trails are always left behind, she said, which means a deleted image can be traced and recovered.
The potential for embarrassing photos spread around school is huge.
Brewer said in addition to monitoring technology, parents and educators must be aware of how to report bullying and how to stop it.
South Carolina has state laws and government policies against harassment, intimidation, or bullying, starting with S.C. Code Ann. § 59-63-110. It states:
• Keep evidence of cyberbullying. Record the dates, times, and descriptions of instances when cyberbullying has occurred. Save and print screenshots, emails, and text messages.
• Block the user.
• Use evidence to report cyberbullying to web and cell phone providers and school officials.
• Cyberbullying becomes a crime and should be reported to law enforcement if it involves threats of violence, sexually explicit messages or photos, photos of someone in a place where she would expect privacy, or stalking and hate crimes.
For more information, visit www.stopbullying.gov.
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