‘Best policy’ to thwart online bullying? EC paper says raise awareness

Parents, educators, policymakers and young people worry that online bullying may increase in their communities. In speaking with these groups, however, concerns seem to stem mostly from fear that something might happen. This is due largely to a lack of awareness about many of the truths surrounding this critical issue. Thankfully, online bullying (also referred to as cyberbullying) is an actual concern for far fewer individuals, families and communities. Still, it is these highly publicized and often tragic cases that help to perpetuate growing fears.

According to a new report from the European Commission (EC), awareness-raising, coupled with involvement from all interested groups, is the “best policy” to help combat online bullying: “The educational effort goes beyond families and educators. The effort needs to involve all relevant actors, providing them with skills and means to act, as well as psychological and expert support when needed.”

Titled “Cyber-Bullying and Social Networks among Teenagers,” the report is the product of an extensive literature review and two-day workshop held last October by the EC’s Institute for the Protection and the Security of the Citizen (IPSC) at its Joint Research Center (JRC) in Ispra, Italy. Along with five professors from European universities and one U.S.-based cyberbullying prevention specialist, I had the pleasure of participating in the dialogue to help provide private-sector perspective.

The goal of the workshop was to “explore the ethical challenges arising from social networks” among the teenage demographic, thereby helping to inform and support EC policies. The workshop and report addressed several pertinent themes, including the various elements of existing definitions; data and research and practical advice and guidance for parents, caregivers, schools and administrators.

Microsoft defines online bullying as “the use of electronic technology to demonstrate behavior—often repeated—that teases, demeans or harasses someone less powerful.” Interested in assessing global pervasiveness, last year we released (and shared at the workshop) results of an online behavior survey of more than 7,500 eight to 17 year-olds in 25 countries. Fifty-four percent said they worried about being bullied online; 37 percent said they had experienced what adults would consider to be online bullying, and 24 percent said they had done something that most would equate with online bullying.

Microsoft has been focused on this issue for the last half-decade. We see our role in online bullying specifically, and in Internet safety generally, as both a creator of digital devices and services, and as an informer and proponent of “digital citizenship”: safer, responsible and appropriate use of technology. Still, as the EC paper points out, online bullying, like its traditional in-person counterpart, is largely a social construct and technology cannot cure social shortcomings.

An important piece of the Internet safety equation, and one that Microsoft continues to advocate for, is parental and/or adult involvement in youth and teens’ use of online technologies. Indeed, we routinely call on all involved to help create a “culture of online safety,” where exercising safer habits and practices is akin to locking doors and wearing seatbelts. This can only be accomplished if all actors know their roles and share in that responsibility.

The authors of the EC cyberbullying paper agree. “(W)hile the school is important, the role of parents in prevention and action needs to be strongly reinforced,” they wrote, emphasizing the need to ratchet up parents’ awareness and monitoring of their children’s use of technology. “This should be complemented with open conversations with the adolescents about their awareness of … (cyberbullying) and strategies to cope with it or, where relevant, about their involvement in electronic aggression. Hence, in order to address the cyber-bullying phenomenon, partnerships are needed, with all actors needing to identify and play their relevant roles.”

To assist adults in recognizing and addressing the issue, Microsoft has created several resources, including an online bullying quiz. This interactive tool walks individuals through a number of scenarios designed to enable them to talk about, identify and respond to the range of negative online behaviors from meanness to bullying and beyond.

In addition, we encourage all adults to:

· Pay attention. Regularly sit with young kids as they play online. From time to time, ask “tweens” and teens to take you on a “tour” of what they’re doing online. Model positive social behavior and watch for signs of online cruelty.

· Encourage empathy. A powerful way to help combat online bullying is to encourage kids to put themselves in others’ shoes:

· Bystanders. To help kids support each other, we’ve identified ways they can become “Upstanders,” like being kind, setting a good example, blocking bullies, asking them to stop and telling others. And adults, don’t forget your role as back-up support.

· Targets. If a child is the target of online bullying, don’t wait to see if the abuse will stop. Get the full story, acknowledge the pain and ask what you can do to help. Then, make the child’s answers the basis of the plan to help address the problem.

· Bullying. If you discover someone is a bully, acknowledge the problem (making it clear that it’s not OK to bully), and try to understand what happened. If necessary, get professional help.

· Promote kindness in kid’s learning and social circles, and again, model that positive behavior with your own friends and family.

Learn more about preventing online bullying and fostering digital citizenship by consulting these resources: brochure, fact sheet, online bullying graphical whitepaper, digital citizenship graphical whitepaper, toolkit. Also, regularly check in to our Safety & Security Center, where all of our tools and resources are posted. “Like” us page on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

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