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In this morning’s New York Times, Jan Hoffman pens a thoughtful piece on Cyberbullying- an issue we’ve been hearing about on a daily basis since it first began hitting our collective radars right around 2003. With legislation pending in numerous states (see a paper by Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet on the legal ins and outs of this issue), we’ve seen an uptick of outrage and an increase in the interest of this topic.

In the article, Hoffman reveals the quandary schools find themselves in when faced with allegations of cyberbullying – particularly when it occurs off campus, and outside of school hours. And we know that these issues are complex to say the least. Tweens are still learning how to navigate the amoeba-like groups that seem to form, swarm and break up as quickly as a tweet...Throw in the ability and the opportunity to broadcast your every thought – positive or negative – to your whole group and beyond; it’s not surprising that tweens stumble as often as they succeed.

But we were most struck by one pervasive attitude about cyberbullying that seems to seep through in the article, but isn’t addressed explicitly. The article appears on the NYTimes website under the sub-head, “Poisoned Web” (leading one to believe that this might be a section, alongside “Arts” and “Real Estate”). In her article, she exposes an email (that had already received attention from across the country) from a NJ middle school principle that read, “There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site.” And haven’t we all heard “those kids today and their Internet” from even the most progressive of our friends and relatives? In fact, I caught myself talking about teen relationships inappropriately publicized on Facebook just this past weekend…

It’s not that we deny the influence that social networking, texting and even AIM have on the way middle schoolers act. But instead of looking to technology as the cause of tween torment, and getting rid of it or forbidding it as the solution, maybe we need to say “thanks” to Facebook and Twitter for getting an evergreen issue on our radars once again. Middle school is hard. Ask any tween. Or rather, watch them and listen to the way they talk about their lives have changed. We place high expectations on them and sometimes forget to give them the scaffolding they need when it comes to social skills. The speed with which damage occurs is the change – but tweens excluding others, gossiping, name-calling, lying and manipulating? Not new. These things are likely to stand the test of time – and will remain as hurdles to growing up with a sense of self-efficacy intact – as long as we have tweens and middle schools.

But how do we protect our tweens from the emotional and sometimes, physical effects of bullying? We may not have the answer, but we do know that any solution must take into account the way that tweens really interact and truly talk. This means seeking to understand why they crave Facebook, Twitter, and inevitably, the next version of each of those communities, versus dismissing them as the bullies themselves.

(photo from NYTimes.com)