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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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Cyber-bullying: confronting a persistent problem

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Heather Weinstock

The Internet is a great place to blog, talk to friends and express your opinions, but it can also have a more negative side when these interactions turn ugly. 

Bullying has long been a serious issue affecting both kids and adults, but cyber-bullying is a growing problem among teenagers and can be just as harmful or worse than the physical or face-to-face variety.

As dosomething.org, a website for teens and social change, notes, “The psychological and emotional outcomes of cyber-bullying are similar to real-life bullying outcomes, except for the reality that with cyber bullying there is often no escape. School ends at 3 p.m., while the Internet is available all the time.”

The site adds that “90 per cent of victims will not inform a parent or trusted adult of their abuse.”

It’s a disturbing statistic, because the toll bullying takes on kids isn’t something that will just go away if you turn off your computer or cellphone.

In some cases, the victim will have to deal with the burden for the rest of his or her life, or for a very long time if they don’t get professional help, thus affecting their self-esteem and trust in themselves and other people.

Heather Weinstock, dean of students at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto’s Wallenberg Campus, said TanenbaumCHAT uses “restorative justice” to solve bullying problems.

It responds to bullying and cyber-bullying by having two older student-volunteers talk to the perpetrator and the victim separately. The volunteers then share each side of the story with both students and a teacher or Weinstock present. A dialogue usually ensues.

By going through this process, kids are often able to sort out problems peacefully, so that both students can go back to class feeling they’re in a safe, caring and healthy environment.

Weinstock said TanenbaumCHAT runs an annual year-long anti-bullying program called “Creating a Caring Community.” It features many events such as workshops and guest speakers who talk about what bullying is and why it’s wrong, thus giving students tools they can use against bullying both in and out of school.

She said the school also strives to make all its students feel safe, noting that the dean’s office – which she said is unique to TanenbaumCHAT – is dedicated to dealing with student problems such as bullying, and that its staff is trained to help.

Writing in The CJN in March 2011, local educator Dan Goldberg examined how all Jewish schools should be dealing with the problem.

“Although schools are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge the presence of teasing or bullying – either because they are afraid it will tarnish their reputation or because they have not found a successful way of addressing it – it is a universal phenomenon,” he wrote.

“A school rooted in Jewish values has a responsibility to provide a caring and nurturing environment for every one of the children who are entrusted to its care,” Goldberg said.

“A Jewish school should have a Jewish soul. It should be a place where all members of the community are treated with dignity and respect. A child who excels in Hebrew, Bible and Talmud but routinely teases and embarrasses classmates has failed to receive a proper Jewish education.”

Goldberg believes that the way to help stop bullying is by using the social inclusion approach (SIA). Developed by Prof. Kim John Payne, SIA focuses on educating bystanders to confront bullying when they see it taking place.

“The SIA focuses on creating a culture where students feel empowered, and where speaking up on behalf of a classmate is encouraged and supported.”

As a student in a public high school myself, I believe the social inclusion approach could be very effective in school settings, but only if more schools educate their students about what bystanders should do, instead of just telling students to stand up to bullies without giving them the tools and strategies on how to act.

Online bullying is a bit of a different story, though. It’s easy to be anonymous on the Internet, so sites such as Facebook should monitor what is appropriate and what isn’t and make it as easy as possible for people to report incidents when they happen.

In short, the principles behind SIA and TanenbaumCHAT’s approach need to be applied to online interactions, because cyber-bullying hurts and embarrasses the victim, and can even lead to mental illness if it’s not handled correctly.

Depression is one possible outcome.

Research led by Jing Wang and her colleagues at the National Institutes of Health in the United States found that victims of cyber-bullying reported higher rates of depression than victims of other forms of bullying.

“Unlike traditional bullying, which usually involves a face-to-face confrontation, cyber victims may not see or identify their harasser; as such, cyber victims may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized or helpless at the time of the attack,” they wrote in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

So even though cyber-bullying is a persistent problem, models for confronting it exist. Yet success ultimately lies with educators, social media sites and teens themselves.

It’s not a problem that will go away on its own.

Taylor Isen is a student at Thornlea Secondary School. She is in a journalism co-op program at The CJN.

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