Why schools should better address the problem of cyberbullying?

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On 21 April, UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education took part in discussions “Social media at the service of schools”. Organised by Mel.fm within Moscow International Education Fair 2018, the event gathered specialists from education and digital sectors. One of the main problems discussed was cyberbullying in the light of growing influence of Internet and new media on teaching process.

Today, Internet and social media are an integral part of everyday life for schoolchildren and students, as well as their teachers and parents. As a result, social interaction is increasingly moving to on-line dimension – the fact that strongly affects relationship in a team or a class. Cyberbullying, or digital bullying, is more and more of concern to school staff as it redefines the teacher’s role in violence prevention and response but also gives impetus to more sophisticated forms of harassment and bullying in peer-to-peer relations, especially in the school environment.

During the discussion on methods of fighting back cyberbullying, Yulia Plakhutina, project coordinator at UNESCO IITE (Unit for ICT in health education) talked about the phenomenon of cyberbullying and the reasons why school educators should be paying more attention to it. UNESCO works on offline and online violence prevention among teenagers and claims that an unhealthy psychological climate in schools negatively affects their performance and motivation as well as health and well-being.

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Like any other type of bullying, the problem of cyberbullying needs to be addressed timely and appropriately. But very often it is not under teachers’ jurisdiction to fight aggression that teenagers are exposed online and outside school. Is it legitimate to make teachers take the responsibility over what is happening between schoolchildren in the virtual space? Cyberbullying, indeed, may derive from bullying at school but not necessarily be the one originating between classmates. That is why it is hard for school staff to identify a bullying victim and choose an appropriate behavior pattern.

“Educators need to recognize the seriousness of the problem. We often meet some among them who believe that they have nothing to do with the issue and that teenagers will better figure it out between themselves. However, not being afraid of being ridiculed for opening up about some unpleasant situation is really important to a teenager. For a teacher, in turn, it is crucial to understand how to respond to such a request: just hear it out and provide moral support, recommend qualified help from a psychologist, a doctor or even a lawyer, have a conversation with parents or apply to the higher authorities”, believes Yulia.

Results of the studies, which have been repeatedly conducted under the auspices of UNESCO and other international organizations, suggest that schoolchildren who are systematically exposed to bullying and cyberbullying are more prone to experiments with psychoactive substances, alcohol, unsafe sexual relations, and, as a consequence, are more at risk of unplanned pregnancies, HIV and STIs. In addition, underage victims of harassment feel more suicidal.

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As a part of the discussion, Yulia also presented statistics on the prevalence of cyberbullying among teenagers and talked about methodological guidebooks elaborated and used by UNESCO IITE in this sphere. These materials can be used by teachers and heads of educational organisations while identifying and confronting such situations on time, communicating correctly with children-victims of online bullying or aggressors, and preventing the emergence of conditions for bullying and cyberbullying in future.

Along with awareness-raising among teenagers and their parents, as well as development of clear policies for responding to bullying and cyberbullying in school, recommendations of UNESCO also relate to the active exploration of online space by teachers.

“It is important for educators themselves to learn how the Internet and social networks work, what sites and platforms teenagers use, what slang they speak. This will enable them to react correctly if a teenager decides to seek advice or help, as they will understand all the gravity of the current situation and will not blame it on impressionability of a child”, summed up Yulia Plakhutina.