Will cyberbullying rise alongside online learning?

'We have children who will react to cyberbullying with cyberbullying,' expert says
By: | April 20, 2020
To prevent cyberbullying, superintendents and teachers need to set clear policies and expectations for student behavior in online classes. (Peter Cade/GettyImages.com)To ward off cyberbullying, superintendents and teachers need to set clear policies and expectations for student behavior in online classes. (Peter Cade/GettyImages.com)
Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar

Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar

Rising incidents of cyberbullying could become a vicious cycle as students spend more time online and on social media while their schools are closed and stay-at-home orders isolate them from friends, one expert says.

“It will be even easier for individuals who are already cyberbullying to get to their targets,” says Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar, an associate professor in Purdue University’s Department of Computer & Information Technology. “And unfortunately, all this stress can make people very defensive, and the individuals who are being cyberbullied may end up retaliating online and becoming the instigators.”

“We have children who will react to cyberbullying with cyberbullying,” she adds.

School administrators and teachers need to set clear policies and expectations for online behavior, particularly regarding certain ethnic groups that have been targetted since the coronavirus outbreak, Seigfried-Spellar says.

Educators should be on the lookout for cyberbullies who take—and then circulate—screenshots of other students during online classes.

Some students may be caught in awkward positions—some might not even be aware their computers’ cameras are on—if they are not familiar with the online platform their teachers are using, Seigfried-Spellar says.


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Another point of concern is that fewer students may come forward to report cyberbullying as they have lost daily, face-to-face contact with teachers, coaches and other educators, Seigfried-Spellar says.

‘Screen time is saving schools’

The Cyberbullying Research Center’s blogs offer parents and teachers more guidance on technology use and online learning:

But parents and educators should also avoid cutting students off from technology.

“During this time, it would be more detrimental to have social media time taken away, especially if students are using it as a healthy mechanism to communicate with friends and stay connected,” Seigfried-Spellar says. “So, parents and teachers need to be great communicators.”

When cyberbullying occurs outside school

With classrooms shuttered, administrators should determine how to apply behavior policies to cyberbullying incidents that take place outside school buildings, says Justin W. Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


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“If whatever is happening is disrupting the ability of students to learn or feel safe, then something needs to be done,” Patchin says. “The big question is what. Are you going to kick a kid off Zoom or out of the online learning system?”

Signs of cyberbullying include, for instance, an abrupt lack of participation by a student who had been an active participant in online discussions or message boards.

“Teachers have long been tasked with being detectives to figure out what’s going on with students, but now it’s is more difficult because they’re not face-to-face with the children,” Patchin says. “Even if these things aren’t happening in school, educators and parents have an obligation to teach kids how to use technology safely and responsibly.”

Students now learning to use new apps and websites will need extra guidance to prevent any gap in understanding from leaving them at risk of cyberbullying, says Melissa Straub, a New Jersey-based school counselor and private investigator who runs High Impact Youth Training Solutions.

“The normal way of reporting being cyberbullied is face-to-face interaction with teachers or counselors,” says Straub, who presented on social media and cyberbullying at FETC® 2020. “Now that they’re not having that interaction, children may be feeling unheard and incidents might be going unreported.”

It’s also important for educators to educate parents on how the risks are amplified by school closures and how they can monitor students’ tech use for signs of trouble.

Educators can send out newsletters or host webinars with information such as spotting the signs a child is being harassed online.

“Right now, kids are very confused and overwhelmed,” Straub says. “There’s a lot of fear of the unknown, and there’s a lot of bias and discrimination going on out there.”


DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.


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