“People don’t do it face-to-face anymore,” Loer said. “They don’t have enough guts. I don’t know what that number (of kids facing cyberbullying) is, but essentially the only bullying I’ve seen is cyberbullying.”
Cyberbullying is defined as the use of digital devices, such as computers, tablets and cellphones, to persistently send, post or share harmful or false content about someone to the point where it becomes harassment. An individual harmful post is not necessarily cyberbullying. Catherine Gillach, the assistant superintendent of the Grand Forks Public School District, said that many bullying reports describe individual instances of conflict rather than actual bullying, which is more persistent.
Children who are bullied may show an increase in depression and anxiety symptoms and health complaints and a decrease in academic achievement. Kids who are bullied are also at a higher risk of suicide, though bullying is not the only factor that leads to suicidal thoughts.
Of students who reported being bullied, 15.3% said they were cyberbullied, which is an increase of 4% from 2014, according to a July 2019 NCES report and a December 2016 report on bullying. This is in contrast to the decline of about 0.4% in bullying overall.
About 21% of girls who reported bullying experienced cyberbullying compared to 7% of boys, and girls were more likely to report bullying than boys.
Loer said that he sees more girls on the attacking and receiving end of cyberbullying than boys, and Gillach said that she had also seen “far more” girls being affected. However, this didn’t mean the boys never experience it.
“I don’t think anybody’s completely immune,” Gillach said.
Most instances of cyberbullying involved the appearance of the victim, which she said might impact girls, students of color and LGBTQ, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning, students more than boys, white students and non-LGBTQ students.
Gillach said that the school district tries to take a proactive and comprehensive approach to bullying prevention. She said that lessons regarding empathy and impulse control are included in the curriculum.
“Starting as early as even pre-K, we work on preventing bullying and bullying-type behaviors by teaching kids social and emotional skills, how to have a positive relationship with a peer and, as they move into middle school and high school, how to have positive and healthy relationships with maybe a significant other,” Gillach said.
Gillach said the school district tries to improve its anti-bullying policies and curriculum with feedback from student focus groups and surveys. The school implemented an online reporting method for this reason, Gillach said.
Gillach and Loer said that they see bullying going unreported as the hardest part of preventing bullying. As of right now, there is no way to know how many instances of bullying go unreported or all the factors that motivate not reporting bullying.
“If I had all the answers to that, we would have better systems in place,” Gillach said. “But I think it’s probably perceptions about what will or will not happen based on wherever those perceptions are coming from. It might be a bad past experience. It might be just not really knowing where to go despite the fact that we feel we try to empower students and empower families and build in safe and trusting environments that they would feel comfortable reporting in … Despite your best efforts, you’re not always going to hit 100% of the population.”
Loer and Gillach said they believe that cyberbullying is an exacerbation of already-present bullying problems in schools and that social media has made it more difficult for kids to find a safe haven.
“It (social media) has created a dynamic where it’s harder for students to get away from it because it’s coming after them beyond the school day,” Gillach said. “Before social media, at least kids could get some reprieve when they went home and now they seem piped into each other … Social media’s not all evil … but when you pair having access like that and the adolescent brain, which is impulsive … that’s where the danger in that sort of thing can fall.”
In some cases, cyberbullying escalates into criminal acts. Making personal or terroristic threats and distributing nude photos of other students can lead to felony and misdemeanor charges depending on the context, age of the perpetrator and victim and whether the language can be classified as hate speech. Gillach said that, while the number of incidents that escalate to criminal charges is not large, it’s not unheard of either.
After investigating bullying reports, Loer and Gillach said Grand Forks and East Grand Forks try to take immediate action.
“We figure out what the kids like to do … like if they like activities, we give them a code of conduct violation so they cannot participate,” Loer said.
Other punitive measures include detention, suspension and, if the case is serious enough, expulsion. If the bully or another person attempts to retaliate against the reporter, the punishment becomes more severe.
Gillach said that the school also attempts to support the victim by offering counseling, having a trusted adult regularly check in with the victim, changing the perpetrator’s class and changing the perpetrator’s locker if necessary to keep the perpetrator and victim as far apart from each other as possible. The school district also tries to “break the cycle” of bullying through education, Gillach said.
“One of the things that our school district tries to do is not just slap the consequence on but try to give the consequence but also teach students the right thing and the right way, kind of work with the lagging skills, we call it,” Gillach said. “So if somebody really is in a space that they’re acting out to people in that nature, what is it that they’re not getting and how can we help them find a better way to get what they need and to teach them better tools so that it’s not just an ongoing cycle.”
Loer said that, when a student is experiencing cyberbullying, talking to a trusted adult — whether the adult is a teacher, school resource officer or parent — is the first step. He also recommends that students block the bully and, if possible, collect evidence of the bully’s activity. Loer and Gillach recommend that students report as soon as a bullying situation arises because it’s easier to prevent the problem from causing lasting harm if caught early.
“The biggest thing is to get kids to report,” Loer said. “Let me know when it’s two or three times and not 11 or 12.”
Some people, and teenagers, in particular, are often reluctant to leave social media. Teens use social media to connect to each other and share news, so it can be stigmatizing or ostracizing to leave the platform. Other teens might not want to leave social media because they want to track what is being said about them. However, even when people get off the platform, sometimes friends who are still on the platform and have not blocked the perpetrator tell victims about what is being said about them, Loer said.
Gillach and Loer also recommend that kids report the activity and make an effort to either ignore it or block or mute the perpetrator or delete their own social media accounts.
“Bottom line? Tell a trusted adult because we’re here to help and we’re here to support,” Gillach said. “The second thing I can say is don’t get baited in in a matter that will make the situation worse or suddenly, you’re also behaving just as badly as the person who is kind of instigating in the first place.”
Loer and Gillach said they hope that as more people learn about cyberbullying and the consequences and safety measures in place for it, cases of cyberbullying will decrease.
“I think that we’re doing well,” Gillach said. “Does that mean that we can’t do even better? No. We want to be 100%, not just 90%.”