In a time when the global society is struggling to contain the pandemic, the education system has found itself under strain. From lesson format complexities to uncertainties in funding, COVID-fueled changes are hitting schools hard. Schools are trying to make remote learning as easy as possible for their students. But is it as safe as possible too? Does “online school” mitigate bullying, or actually make it worse?
Let’s think back to the pre-pandemic classroom. Imagine a (slightly stereotypical) middle school. The class is divided into invisible silos. There, on one side of the room, are the popular kids: those on the basketball, soccer, track, whateverothersportsthereare teams. Not far away is the drama squad: the musical-lovers, the wondrous clones of the bard from The Witcher. Somewhere across the room there are the geeks, the artsy ones, the mathletes. The Harry Potter nerds (they get a separate category).
When the teacher asks a question, the confident kids talk, the shy ones don’t. Some are bullies, some are victims. Victims face constant questions: will I get pushed in the hallway? Will I sit alone at lunch again? Will I be dunked in the toilet? (Do people still do that?) Now, with online schooling, these aspects are no longer relevant. However, others may arise which may be even more dangerous.
Can a disconnected environment help?
Perhaps we can talk about the positives first. According to research, social exclusion is a significant aspect of bullying that may now be significantly lessened. Previously, the school served as a continuous shared setting, and an opportunity for certain students to remind others they were not “welcome” in their friend groups. Furthermore, group trips to the mall, movies, and football games were a possible pastime. One that allowed for juicy social media pictures which, sometimes, aimed to make the uninvited feel upset and uncomfortable.
Now, there is a shared understanding that everyone is experiencing a similar state of uncertainty and isolation (#AloneTogether), so there is less room for exclusion within the educational setting.
Another benefit is the opportunity for kids to interact within the classroom from the comfort of their homes: a safe space for children who would normally feel hesitant to engage. Based on recent findings, kids who are shy or tend to stay away from speaking in class due to fear of judgement or scrutiny of peers have felt more confident in a virtual setting. Hence, some kids may feel less under threat of in-class bullying and more willing to participate. And higher participation is conducive to better learning and involvement with the material.
The data is alarming
At this point, you may be asking, what could be the problem? Online schooling seems great.
Well, the issue is one that’s often seemingly invisible: cyberbullying.
An AI-driven report published in April of 2020 revealed a 70% increase in hate speech on social media and in online chat forums among children and teens. Despite these numbers, technological platforms are showing difficulties in securing their products from aggressive behaviors, and protecting users from toxic content and conversations.
The issue is exacerbated with the lack of visibility of this behavior to teachers and administrators. Prior to the pandemic, physical and verbal cues of bullying behavior could be spotted by educators and counselors, but hateful comments, posts, and messages across a variety of apps are much more difficult to spot. Plus, now there is a greater reliance on the use of technology, so children may not have an easy time avoiding these negative online behaviors.
Furthermore, school support resources, such as counselors, currently have to operate online, and students may find it difficult to share their feelings and thoughts through a screen. However, at a time where loneliness and potential new home stressors can be heightened, feeling support is crucial for young people.
Cyberbullying was already on the rise, even before COVID-19. In 2019, The U.S. Department of Education reported that there was a significant uptick in online bullying behaviors, putting the national percentage of cyberbullied students at 15.3%. Similarly, in the UK, 20% of young people between the ages of 12 and 20 had experience cyberbullying in 2019. Hence, with an even greater usage of technological devices during the pandemic, there comes an even greater risk of cyberbullying.
What can we conclude from this?
There are possible pros and cons to remote schooling when it comes to mitigating bullying, but educators and parents should be aware of issues around cyberbullying to navigate them with care. If you can’t explicitly see something, does NOT mean it’s not there, so be on the look-out for signals of online bullying dynamics!
Although it has been months since the start of the pandemic, people are still feeling increased stress, confusion, and other emotions that may put their mental health at risk. It is particularly important to make sure children and teens are feeling cared for and encouraged.
Remember: strong people stand up for themselves, but the strongest people stand up for others.