ATHENS, Ohio (Jan. 12, 2011) — Some school social workers report that they don’t feel equipped to handle incidents of cyberbullying among teens.
A new Ohio University-led survey of 399 members of the 11-state Midwest School Social Work Council found that while nearly all agreed that cyberbullying can cause psychological harm — including suicide — and deserved more attention from schools, just more than half felt empowered to deal with the issue. In contrast, other research on traditional bullying suggests that 86 percent of school staff members are confident in their ability to manage those problems.
“Social workers were definitely aware that cyberbullying happens, but reported that they may not be as prepared as they would like to deal with it. The legal issues trip them up, as much of this activity occurs outside of school,” said lead author Karen Slovak, an associate professor of social work at Ohio University’s Zanesville campus. She and co-author Jonathan Singer of Temple University published the findings this month in the journal Children & Schools.
The study, which surveyed social workers in rural, urban and suburban elementary, middle and high schools, found the greatest level of awareness and concern among middle-school officials. Cyberbullying often starts during middle school and can persist in high schools, while elementary school administrators reported less incidence of the problem, the authors reported.
Recent studies suggest that between 9 and 29 percent of youths have been the victims of online harassment. Though school social workers and other administrators often are well-trained to deal with traditional bullying, cyberbullying poses some unique challenges: It’s often anonymous, can occur at any time and without regard to geographical barriers, often happens outside of school, can have a large online audience — due to its viral nature — through social networking sites, and may have limited monitoring by adults, the researchers noted.
About half of the social workers in the study argued that students weren’t reporting incidents of cyberbullying to school officials, making it difficult for them to monitor and manage the problems, Slovak said. Teens may be reluctant to raise the issue, she noted, because they may think that social workers might not be able to help them resolve online harassment that often occurs off school property. They also may fear that parents might restrict computer time or confiscate personal cell phones to cut off access to virtual bullies, she added.
An absence of or lack of awareness about a specific school policy on cyberbullying also hampers management of the issue, the study found. Only one in five school social workers surveyed believed that their school had an effective policy on cyberbullying, and some respondents were unsure if their schools even had a policy on the books.
“I think the school social workers do a good job of dealing with these problems, but they’re often flying solo,” Slovak said. “If they’re looking for evidenced-based training and policies, there hasn’t been much for them to latch onto.”
Slovak noted that some state legislatures, including Ohio, have mandated school bullying policies to include cyberbullying, which may improve the situation. She hopes to conduct a follow-up study in the near future to track progress on this issue, given the fast-changing nature of technology trends.
In the meantime, Slovak said that the survey suggests that school social workers understand the gravity of cyberbullying, as well as the specific problems technology poses. “Technology has that anonymity factor — not being face-to-face removes certain social cues,” she said. “When you bully someone online or through texting, you don’t see them cry, you don’t see the look of anxiety on their face.”
It’s important to empower school social workers to handle cyberbullying, she argued, because these professionals are often in the best position to counsel parents and teens about the dangers of online harassment.
“Some people may say, ‘Sticks and stones can break bones, but words can never hurt me,'” Slovak said. “But those words can be strong, and they can lead to suicide, depression and other negative behaviors.”
The research was funded by Ohio University Outreach and Regional Campuses.