In the context of digital citizenship, my last entry referenced the digital native-digital immigration dichotomy that witnesses reported to the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights during our recent hearings on cyberbullying. Given witnesses’ insistence that digital literacy was more about learning respect than HTML codes, their observation prompted broader reflection on the culture in which “digital natives” have grown.
“When we think about bullying and cyberbullying…” offered Professor Faye Mishna, Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, “if we live in a society where there are certain attitudes, discriminations and prejudices, even though that might not be bullying per se, it sets an atmosphere that gives a message to kids that it is okay.”
The implications of that declaration seem daunting. If preventing cyberbullying hinges on reversing discriminatory attitudes, the scope of the problem suddenly expands from teaching children…to teaching ourselves. There’s good news, though—young people seem on the cusp of leading a massive rethink about how we, adults and children alike, treat one another. In June, Scott Hirschfeld, Director of Curriculum of the Anti-Defamation League, offered concrete reason for hope:
It speaks to an issue of an entire school culture. Much of the research shows that most students and young people are privately uncomfortable with bullying and retaliatory behaviour; however, they may feel that they are the only ones who are feeling or thinking that way and that the rest of their peers would support that kind of negative behaviour going on in the environment.
You have a lot of students who share the same feelings and beliefs, all keeping quiet, because they feel that they are the only ones who think that way. It is the responsibility of a school to open up the dialogue, to educate, and to make students aware that the majority of students want a safe, supportive environment. The majority of kids do not support the bullying behaviour. When that information gets out in the open, the social norms of the entire community can be adjusted, and most students can be empowered to act as allies and supporters so that retaliation cannot take hold.
Hirschfeld’s testimony speaks to the transformational power of educational leadership. As Justin Patchin, Co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Clair testified, there’s an inverse relationship between “a positive climate at school” and bullying:
The benefits of a positive climate at school have been identified through much research over the last 30 years…it contributes to more consistent attendance, higher student achievement and other desirable student outcomes. Though limited, the research done on school climate and traditional bullying also underscores its importance in preventing peer conflict. Existing research has consistently identified an inverse relationship between climate and bullying. The more positive climate at school, the less bullying that happens at school. Our research over the last year has also demonstrated that the better the climate at school, the fewer problems with cyberbullying and other online behaviours we see in the schools as well, both victimization and offending.
Patchin’s research is important. It demonstrates to policy makers, educators, and parents that emphasizing the importance of values education is justified. There’s empirical evidence—30 years of empirical evidence!—that supports encouraging a positive school climate as the clearest way to prevent bullying. In particular, Sandi Urban-Hall, President-Elect of the Canadian School Boards Association, highlighted the need for an inclusive environment. “Being inclusive,” she told us, “makes the school population, the students, less vulnerable.”
Creating that climate requires opportunities to engage and learn, to confront and explore, to question and critique. Bill Belsey, teacher at Springbank Middle School and President of Bullying.org, argued for this approach:
I think it is important and germane to discussions about cyber-bullying, because we need to model for our kids — not have a culture of banning and blocking. We need to have a culture of planning and teaching and learning, where we say how do we use Skype? Guess what, we connect with kids from Africa. Why do projects about Africa when we can do it with them?
Belsey emphasized reversing the capacity for technology to be used in harmful ways, and instead encouraging students to see the internet as a tool to connect with others and build meaningful, positive relationships.
When cyberbullying does occur, witnesses stressed the need to repair relationships and restore positive cultures, where possible through restorative justice programs. Professor Tina Daniels of Carleton University’s Department of Psychology, Cathy Wing, Co-Executive Director of the Media Awareness Network, Belsey, and many others highlighted the need for students to learn from conflict and to remain responsible for promoting an inclusive culture. Said Belsey:
I think restorative justice is a really important thing. When you hear terms that are bandied about these days in education, such as “zero tolerance,” the idea to not want to tolerate bullying is laudable; however, to say, “If you bully, you are out,” really does not, of course, change anything. What is important with approaches like restorative justice is that there are consequences, but they are formative consequences, consequences that teach.
“Consequences that teach,” recalls once more the value and importance of positive learning experiences, and the role that schools can play, with the support of parents and communities, in fostering these opportunities by promoting an inclusive culture. It was a message that our committee heard repeatedly during the hearings. Wing captured witnesses’ consensus on the importance of school cultures:
Cultivating healthy school cultures, as we have heard from all the witnesses that have previously spoken, is extremely important. We need to create cultures of respect and empathy in our schools, which will permeate all aspects of school life and the student-teacher and administration relationships. Parents and the wider community must be included as integral members of this culture.
Witness testimony demonstrates that, to change our culture for the better, a consistent set of values—inclusion, respect, compassion—must somehow manifest through modelled leadership. It’s also clear that these values aren’t necessarily innate: they’re taught, learned, and experienced from a young age. My next entry will explore witnesses’ observations on how child development influences the cyberbullying phenomenon.