Don’t Keep Scrolling! Teaching Young People to be Upstanders Online

April 18 2018

For some of us, the term “cyberbullying” might be unfamiliar, a strange combination of two words that don’t belong together. But in today’s world of ubiquitous online communication, the practice of mistreating other people through texting, social media and gaming is taking a front and center presence in the news, in schools, in our political arena, and even in court cases.

As former kids ourselves, it’s not hard to acknowledge that kids try out being mean, just like they try out touching hot things, going too fast on their bikes, or throwing a temper tantrum in a store. They are exploring how the world works and discovering the impacts of their actions. They learn from the reactions of parents, teachers, friends, and the effects of gravity. When a young person does or says something hurtful to another, and they watch that person’s face crumple into a frown or tears, the feedback they receive is that what they said caused hurt to another. In most humans, witnessing this negative emotional reaction in others tells us to not repeat the action or words that caused it.

However, when a mean comment is posted or texted, the ability to see the impact on the “target” is removed. Then, to add insult to injury, when others “like” the comment, or share the post, the feedback to the aggressor is actually social approval, popularity, laughter. This “piling on” creates the cycle of cyberbullying, bullying that reaches students 24/7 and has been linked in recent news stories to teen suicides.

So what do we do? How can we support our young people in recognizing the problem and standing up for the person being targeted? At Community Matters, we suggest these 3 simple steps to building upstander behavior online:

  1. ASK QUESTIONS. This is uncharted territory, “an unprecedented social experiment” according to International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) founder Ted Wachtel. So we cannot assume we know what our children or students are experiencing online. Instead, ask the questions: “Do you see people posting or saying mean things about other people online? Do you see people sharing photos or videos that might embarrass the people in them? Do people send group text messages that are meant to put down or hurt others?” Learn more about what is going on by LISTENING.
  2. BRAINSTORM WAYS TO BE AN UPSTANDER: Talk with young people about what they can do when they see a mean-spirited post, text, meme, video, or photo online. If they are trained as Safe School Ambassadors, ask them how they could use their Ambassador Actions online. Coursework and articles on digital citizenship can also help promote codes of online conduct that value kindness and inclusion over cruelty.
  3. FOLLOW UP WITH SCHOOL SITE ADMINISTRATORS. Schools have a responsibility to establish and enforce policies and procedures to address bullying. As the methods of bullying have shifted, most schools also have policies in place to address cyberbullying. If you’re a parent who learns about something occurring online, support your child in letting school administration know, regardless of if he/she is the target or simply a bystander turned upstander. You can also help your young person report the content to the site directly as harassment, bullying, hate speech, sexually-explicit content, self-harm, etc. Don’t do it for them; help them take action to increase their resilience and confidence in speaking up.

In a world where it’s easier than ever to be a bystander, to hide behind a screen, it is the responsibility of each of us to engage, empower, and equip young people with the skills to tap into their courage, and stand up for one another!

Learn more about how Community Matters programs & services can help create better social outcomes on your campus.

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