Cyberbullying Prevention: A Case for Starting Early

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Last week, Hillary Clinton released her plan for a $500 million anti-bullying initiative for safer schools. Her campaign highlights cyberbullying as a national priority: “While the Internet is essential to helping students learn and communicate,” her plan says, “cyberbullying has become a harmful extension of bullying in the classroom.”

Members of the Trump camp agree with Hillary’s concerns. Yesterday in a Pennsylvania campaign rally, Melania Trump announced for the second time her plans to address cyberbullying as First Lady, “Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers. It is never okay when a twelve-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied, or attacked. It is terrible when that happens on the playground, and it is absolutely unacceptable when it’s done by someone with no name hiding on the Internet.” In her speech, Mrs. Trump made a sharp distinction between cyberbullying amongst adults (which some reporters say is surging due to Donald Trump’s rhetoric) and the experience of children.  

With the backdrop of a rancorous and long campaign season, the prevention of cyberbullying among school-age children has emerged as a bipartisan issue. What policymakers, parents and educators may also need to recognize is that addressing cyberbullying may require starting with early education.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines cyberbullying as bullying that occurs using any electronic technology, including social media, text messages, and websites. Similar to in-person bullying, some children who face cyberbullying may react by skipping school or even suicidal ideation. Despite the fact that bullying has been trending downward nationally, there has been a spike in cyberbullying.   

Parents and educators alike often do not think about this issue until students are in middle or high school, but in order to end cyberbullying, children must learn about the negative impact of this behavior at an earlier age.

A recent report from FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization based in New York City, provides some ideas for how to think about these early years. Their report advocates for teaching young children to become safe and responsible digital citizens in pre-K through third grade. According to Merle Froschl and Barbara Sprung, the report’s authors, “A new educational paradigm is needed so that teachers and parents may help children develop the skills, and establish the principles, in the earliest [years and] grades that will enable them to thrive in both the real and digital worlds.” (Full disclosure: I was on the committee that in a day-long session advised the authors of this report.) Teaching young children how to treat each other with respect online and in-person is becoming increasingly essential because children are interacting with technology at younger ages--even as toddlers. While young children likely do not engage in cyberbullying, creating good digital citizens is important for prevention.

With the release of the American Academy of Pediatrics new guidance on young children and media, which highlights the benefits of using media that is designed to facilitate learning, there is even more of a pressing need for early childhood teachers to mentor families on how to develop a positive culture around the use of these digital tools. Families and early childhood educators will need to begin to grapple with how best to teach young children in the digital age. FHI 360 offers one solution with their K-3 digital citizens curriculum, but this is just a beginning step. Educators will need to go even farther by thinking about how to integrate socio-emotional learning and development into the use of digital media in the early years and grades. More research will need to be done to understand the best ways this can be achieved. And, if the next administration wants to address cyberbullying in a meaningful way at the federal level, they will need to invest in more research and evidence-based tools that can be used at the local level to help teachers and families.

Author:

Shayna Cook is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project. Cook researches and reports on innovation in family engagement, new technologies, and digital equity issues concerning children from birth through third grade.