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Cyberbullying: is it time for a new approach?

A blog by Adam Speight, Head of ICT and Computer Science, Mary Immaculate High School

Ipad with question mark image

Bullying in all forms is unacceptable, and communicating that fact to students is vital.

When we speak to young people in schools about bullying, they will listen, participate in discussions and ultimately agree that it’s wrong. However, when students move away from those discussions and go back to their everyday lives, too often we see lessons about bullying go out the window.

This is partly because it requires a concerted, multi-faceted effort to improve a young person’s behaviour. But young people these days are also empowered by a piece of technology that is usually found clutched firmly in their hands: their ultimate weapon, the smart phone.

Smart phones can be risky for young people because they are seen as the key to becoming popular. If you can convince a student to look up from their device of choice, they will probably be able to tell you how many people saw their latest post, how many followers they have, how many followers their friends have, and what the hottest celebrities are up to. All of these can be considered measures of popularity – but the flipside of that, as always, is a distorted sense of self-worth.

Another important – and troubling – development from smart phones is that young people think it’s acceptable to say whatever they want online. Often these are things you wouldn’t say to a person’s face (insults, even threats), but the magic “send” button adds anonymity and distance that emboldens bullies.

It's important to add that new technology such as smartphones provide lots of benefits for young people. By being plugged into the wider world, they can keep up-to-date with current affairs, share and discuss their opinions, and use apps as engaging learning tools. So it’s a case of ‘everything in moderation’ for digital technology, balancing these opportunities while equipping them to appreciate the importance of life offline.

Cyberbullying policy in schools

In my experience, e-safety provision in UK schools is varied and inconsistent – some schools don’t like to admit that there are problems, or they might see it as outside of their jurisdiction. This can cause an issue when we look at the rise of cyberbullying.

Schools need to strike a healthy balance by educating young people about how to use this technology appropriately, while also giving them freedom to promote themselves and share private information in a way they see fit. Of course, it’s not just down to schools to take action in this space – it’s important to acknowledge the role parents and carers can play. We also need to ensure that there’s a pipeline of students engaged in the many challenges and opportunities of studying ICT and computer science.

Using technology appropriately at all times is a difficult ask for many young people. Therefore, as educators, we need to be realistic about cyberbullying. This means ensuring e-safety provision in schools supports not only the victims of cyberbullying, but also those responsible for it.

When dealing with older students, we also need to be aware about updating traditional advice about e-safety. For example, one of the most common e-safety messages given out in schools is to not meet people you talk to online. In a world where many of us meet our future partners online, this advice is outdated now and could undermine other safety messages. It needs to be a nuanced approach, running alongside messages about personal safety and other issues such as sexual consent.

By understanding the complexities of cyberbullying, we’re better prepared for a ‘restorative’ approach whereby we ask young people to focus on what the consequences of cyberbullying can be for both the perpetrator and the victim involved.

Tackling cyberbullying and e-safety

Here are some top tips from my own experience on how to deal with cyberbullying or e-safety incidents:

  1. All educators should have the necessary skills and experience to deal with these incidents, so as to prevent further damage or to effectively respond if they’re the first point of contact. The start of a new school year is the perfect time to make sure everybody is on the same page.

  2. Deal with incidents as soon as they occur. Students are more likely to disclose cyberbullying in the future if they’re reassured that speaking up will be taken seriously and will lead to action. Similarly, our response should be effective and efficient. These incidents can quickly spiral out of control in a way that has devastating long-term effects on an individual.

  3. It’s vital that we keep students informed about how they can disclose experiences of cyberbullying. The process of keeping students informed should be highlighted within your school’s policy.

  4. Students need to feel safe – that means educators responding in a respectful manner. Sometimes the incident will be an embarrassing personal ‘catastrophe’ that was shared without the individual’s permission. We should not jump to judgement about an individual based on what has happened.

  5. Remember that most cyberbullying incidents have developed into something much bigger and more damaging that most students realise. Usually one or both sides has lost control, with peers encouraging the perpetrator to keep going. For this reason, early intervention and handling these incidents seriously will be key.

The key to dealing with cyberbullying is to have strong policies in place to begin with and to be consistent with how incidents are dealt with, so no young person is left behind. Schools need to ensure that their e-safety provision is clear and open to the fact that, just like any other type of misbehaviour, cyberbullying can happen and does happen.

An effective cyberbullying policy will acknowledge the potential damage e-safety incidents can have on a students’ wellbeing. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that e-safety and cyberbullying can have an impact on the wellbeing of educators and teachers. In some instances, it’s a simple case of updating policies and providing staff training or additional resource support.

If you or your colleagues are looking for support on this issue, I would recommend checking out Rise Above for Schools from Public Health England. This newly introduced programme includes a unit on cyberbullying and bullying that highlights the emotional impact it can have on an individual through peer-to-peer discussion, scenarios and videos.

Six questions to consider when developing or updating a cyberbullying policy:

  • What is the school definition of cyberbullying?

  • Who is responsible for dealing with cyberbullying incidents?

  • How do we educate our pupils, parents and carers on the topic of cyberbullying?

  • Where are incidents recorded?

  • In what time frame should incidents be dealt with?

  • What process should be followed in the event of a cyberbullying incident occurring?

Adam Speight is award-winning teacher and currently head of ICT & Computer Science at Mary Immaculate High School in South Wales. A frequent educational writer and speaker, he is interested in innovative teaching ideas that ensure no learner gets left behind.

Rise Above for Schools from Public Health England provides new PSHE resources to support secondary school teachers when promoting positive health, wellbeing and resilience among young people aged 11 to 16. Find out more at

24 Oct 2017