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A Cyberbullying Lesson One Never Forgets


"Ms. Graber, we have a problem.”

This is how Journey School’s sixth-grade teacher greeted me one Monday morning when I arrived to teach her class. “We had a cyberbullying incident over the weekend,” she told me. “I’m hoping you will talk to the students about it during their lesson today.”

“Dang,” I thought to myself.

That day we were scheduled to begin a five-lesson unit called “Cyberbullying and Digital Drama.” I’d been looking forward to guiding her students through sequential activities that would help them identify online cruelty and give them strategies they could use if and when they encountered it. Now it appeared I’d be starting these lessons a day too late.

Here’s what happened: A student in the class had opened a “fake” Instagram account. Kids call this a “Finsta” or “Finstagram,” a combination of the words “fake” and “Instagram.” It is not uncommon for kids to open fake social media accounts, in addition to “real” ones, to have a place to post and comment freely, unconstrained by the negative impact their activities might have upon their digital reputations. Eventually, their “friends”—online and offline—identify the owners of these fake accounts, but that doesn’t stop kids from trying to be anonymous online. In this case, students had already figured out that the fake account’s owner was someone in their class, and through that account had posted something mean and inappropriate on another kid’s feed.

After being apprised of the situation, I took a deep breath, entered the classroom, and found a somber group of students. They confirmed what their teacher had told me—someone had cyberbullied a girl named Rosa,and she had evidence to prove it.

Rosa, a smart, confident preteen who anyone would think twice about bullying online or offline, told me that she had heeded advice I’d given the class a few weeks earlier. She’d taken a screenshot of the evidence and even sent it to Instagram. Instagram, she reported with indignation, had not responded to her complaint. Then she asked me if I would like to see the evidence.

Bracing myself for what I imagined I was about to view, I said yes. Here is what she showed me:

Instagram Post

Struggling to maintain a straight face, I explained to the class why this post, in which Rosa was being called “hot” (or “lit” as kids would say), falls short of “cyberbullying” (which, they were about to learn, is identifiable by these characteristics—it’s online, intentional, repeated, and harmful). Even if the post felt hurtful to Rosa, I explained, chances are that was not the sender’s intent. Additionally, I told them that Instagram would not view this as “cyberbullying.” Its terms of use state that users must not “defame, stalk, bully, abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate, or intimidate” one another. Instagram doesn’t intervene when users comment on one another’s “hotness.”

The students seemed satisfied with my explanations, and I was able to start the day’s cyberbullying lesson with this incident providing the perfect introduction.

But that’s not the end of this story. The next week when I arrived to teach the same class, someone else was waiting for me at the door. This time it was a student named George. One of the smallest boys in the class, George had one of the biggest personalities and typically needed constant reminding to keep still or be quiet. Yet on this day he was subdued.

“Ms. Graber,” he asked in a hushed voice, “may I have a word with you in private?” I told him he could as we had a few free moments before class.

“I’m the one who opened the fake account on Instagram.”

Embarrassed, he looked down at his feet and continued, “You see, I sort of like Rosa and was embarrassed to tell her in person.”

Once again, I found myself desperately trying to maintain my composure. I thanked George for trusting me with his secret, but also warned him it was likely his classmates would find out he had opened the fake account because “nothing online stays private for long.”

“I know, they’re already figuring it out,” he said. “It was stupid. I won’t do it again.”

In addition to its excellent entertainment value, this incident taught me three important lessons:

  1. Cyberbullying is a serious digital-age issue, yet the term is sometimes used too broadly. There’s a difference between actual cyberbullying (remember, it’s online, intentional, repeated, and harmful), digital drama (“mean” online behavior that falls short of harmful), old-fashioned teasing, and miscommunication. Consider a sleepover photo that lands on Instagram. To a child not invited to the event, this image might scream, “You got left out!” While this might feel like cyberbullying to the left-out child (or sometimes even to the parents of the left-out child), it would be inaccurate to label it as such. Even worse, it might be unfair to call the child who posted the photo a bully. All kids make mistakes, and labels can stick. It’s important to remember that every child is different and how he responds to online cruelty, real or imagined, is unique to that child. Complicated? You bet.

  2. Making and maintaining peer relationships has always been a tricky business. Today this developmental task is even more challenging, as it’s taking place in an environment devoid of social cues, facial expressions, or adult role models to provide guidance.

  3. Finally, and most importantly, the online activities of digital kids always provide teachable moments ideal for addressing all of the above, without being preachy or pedantic.

When George shared the secret of his crush with me, I was, coincidentally, about to teach his class a lesson called “Real People, Real Feelings.” During our hour together, we explored how the internet provides ample opportunities for people to hide behind avatars, screen names, and even fake accounts. Psychologists call this online disinhibition, which is the “loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interactions.” George and his classmates learned that because digital media leaves out many of the real-life social cues and facial expressions that prompt us to know how someone is feeling, it’s easy to forget that real people—with real feelings— lie behind all online interactions.

As if by magic, my students’ social media lives often align perfectly with whatever I’m about to teach them that day. This serendipity makes our discussions all the more meaningful and memorable. This can happen at home, too! Granted, your children might not be as willing or eager to tell you about posting their innermost feelings on Instagram, but I bet they would tell you about a friend or classmate doing so. The trick is to open the door to discussions about online relationships, and to leave it wide open.

Excerpted from "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology" (HarperColllins Leadership) by Diana Graber.

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