IN THE LATE 1990s and early 2000s, as schools first started getting widespread access to the internet, many administrators saw the potential in this new technology, but also huge risks and liabilities. While billions were being spent on hardware and connectivity, the mainstream media was fueling parental fears with stories of online predators waiting at every exit of the new information superhighway. The response from many schools was initially to teach internet safety in terms of protection from the two P's: predators and pornography. With funding coming from the Department of Justice, teacher training was conducted by law enforcement personnel and student assemblies often included uniformed police officers. At the same time, numerous well- meaning nonprofits appeared, seeking to help educators communicate with parents and students, but still through a lens of fear and protection.
Many experts now believe this was very much the wrong approach. "We missed the boat by concentrating on internet predators," says Patti Agatston, a nationally recognized counselor and cofounder of Cyberbullyhelp.com. Larry Magid, codirector of ConnectSafely.org, concurs that "predation is statistically so unlikely that it's not where we should be putting our resources."
The focus today, Agatston and Magid agree, should be on empowering kids to be good digital citizens. Groups such as Common Sense Media have in recent years helped to reframe the discussion in terms of the skills students need to live successful, technology-rich 21st century lives. Acquiring these proficiencies requires a positive and more holistic approach: how to protect personal information, interact in social forums, deal with cyberbullying, and critically judge online information are among these vital skills. By focusing on how schools do want kids to behave online rather than on how we don't want them to behave, "We let them assume responsibility for their own learning and their own online experience," says Linda Burch, Common Sense Media's chief education and strategy officer.
Elevating the Issue
Common Sense Media, along with groups such as BrainPop, Learning.com, Media Awareness Network, and Web Wise Kids, all offer a breadth of resources to address these issues. While these organizations strongly encourage administrators to institute the full range of digital literacy curricula, the combination of students with smartphones, the expanded usage of social networking sites, and high-profile media coverage of recent cyberbullying tragedies has elevated the issue of cyberbullying to the top of many administrators' worry lists.
"Bullying and cyberbullying have a lot in common, but in many ways, cyberbullying is even more pernicious," says Anne Schreiber, vice president of education content at Common Sense Media. Schreiber points out that the cyberbully doesn't see his or her victim, which makes it easier to have less empathy than in a face-to-face interaction. What's more, anything written in a text or online chat or on a social networking site can be forwarded to any number of people with just a few clicks, escalating the problem beyond, say, a corner of the school cafeteria.
Schreiber recounts a recent cyberbullying incident that began with a series of hostile text messages at school in the morning. By the afternoon, a fight had broken out between friends of the bully and friends of the victim--the harsh words were forwarded over and over until the whole school was involved. "Because the bullying spread so quickly through viral texting, there was no time for the individuals to cool off and think about how to behave rationally or ethically," Schreiber notes.
Administrators can't shrug off issues of cyberbullying by arguing that the bulk of the issues happen with kids outside of school or that they simply don't have time in the school day. Agatston, who is the coauthor of Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, says that although she appreciates that school leaders are pressed for time to confront these issues, "if they can see the link between academic achievement and bullying, they'll see that it's well worth the time. …