cyber bullyBullying is a behaviour demonstrated by almost everyone – young and old, online and offline. And recent reports (perhaps media hype, perhaps not) have suggested that the Internet has caused an exacerbation in bullying practices due to its penetration and ‘always on’ nature.

Although concrete figures are unavailable, multiple reports have noted that the prevalence of cyberbullying is on the rise. What’s more, is that it is not just a matter of children behaving badly, but there are a number of cases where parents and teachers have also been involved in cyberbullying and/or posting damaging content about the school itself.

Cyberbullying within schools has escalated to such a high level that the Federal government and state education departments are writing various policies and legislation relating to the treatment of such situations. These proposed pieces of legislation have been met with a mixed response. Some applaud the government’s initiative with the attitude that if the legislation and policy can save just one life, it is a success. Although this is true, others argue that these policies would be ineffective, are reactive rather than preventative, and give too much power to school principals.

So what is this proposed legislature/policy?

The Coalition’s Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children

The federal government plans to take a three-tonged approach to enhancing online safety for children. By working with the major social media sites in Australia, they will implement an effective complaint system that will work to remove “harmful” content from these social media sites. They also hope to involve phone providers and software developers in building various programs that may be installed on smartphones and tablet devices and aim to protect children from inappropriate or harmful material. The government also intends to put money into research for information campaigns on online safety.

Victorian Education Department (see here for news article)

The Victorian Education Department has issued a “statement of values” template to all state schools, which outline what is/is not acceptable online behaviour by parents, teacher, and students alike.

The idea behind this “statement of values” is to reprimand any teacher, parent, or student who says something negative about the school or school member. It is the role of the school principal to decide what is/isn’t reasonable and acceptable online behaviour. Education minister Martin Dixon is confident in ability of school principals to undertake this role, but some parents have suggested that giving the sole power to the principal could have negative outcomes. Moreover, I don’t see how this protects the safety of children online. Rather, it seems to be a policy put in place to protect a school’s image.

I personally feel that although both the state and federal government should be applauded for showing some initiative on the cyberbullying front, both approaches are somewhat reactive (with the exception of running an information campaign) and do not deal with the cause of the problem. I also think that the over-monitoring and/or banning of content on social media, as suggested by the federal government, is not going to impress the young people using the sites and this may in turn have a negative backlash, or alternatively drive behaviour further ‘underground’.  However, I don’t know what should be done. I believe that affected students need to feel supported by their community and made to feel safe. An information campaign in schools may be interesting; especially if a relatable human-interest element is added i.e. a cyberbullying victim comes to speak of the effects it has had on them and their family. There are a number of things that could be done and further research (as the federal government has suggested) would be beneficial in finding the answers.

In terms of parents and teachers (who should know better), schools and/or the state government should provide online professionalism courses that outline what is/isn’t appropriate and how complaints and concerns with the school could be handled more effectively and efficiently for both parties.