School social workers play an important role in helping youth respond to bullying and cyberbullying. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five students in this country have reported being bullied and more than fifteen percent of high school students reported being the victim of cyberbullying in 2018.

Defining Cyberbullying

According to stopbullying.gov, a website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cyberbullying can occur online through social media, apps, or gaming. It may involve “sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else…..[or] sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation.” States have varying definitions of cyberbullying. In some states, for example, creating a web page or social media account to impersonate another individual is another form of cyberbullying. Online bullying may also include threats of violence, damage to property, and other threats that can be considered criminal.

Cyberbullying may also involve “sexting” which is the exchange of intimate information, sexual comments, or intimate photos via text. Unwelcome soliciting of sexual acts or making unwanted sexual comments via text can be considered cyberbullying. Intimate photos might be later shared online to humiliate a former girlfriend or boyfriend. This sharing of explicit photos can be considered the dissemination of child pornography in some states (Gordon, 2018).

Effects of Cyberbullying

Victims can experience a host of negative effects from being bullied or cyberbullied including anxiety, depression, decreased academic performance, substance abuse, and health problems. Victims may also generally feel unsafe online and inhibited from enjoying the use of apps, texting, gaming, or social media. It is thought that the connection between being bullied and suicide may be overstated, and that youth who have been bullied and committed suicide generally have a host of other issues as well including trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues.  Bullying in general can be considered an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE) that could result in residual negative health outcomes well into adulthood.

Role of Social Workers

Social workers should be aware that youth who have experienced trauma or have mental health problems or disabilities may be at greater risk of being bullied. For example, young people who have experienced abuse or neglect may be developmentally delayed and have interpersonal problems, thus increasing their risk of being bullied. In fact, bullies themselves are also more likely to also have experienced traumatic events in their lives including child abuse or neglect or witnessing domestic violence in the home.

School social workers can play an important role in preventing cyberbullying, identifying cyberbullying, and working with youth who have been cyberbullied or who are cyberbullies. School social workers have used a number of interventions and approaches to help youth respond to cyberbullying in their schools. This includes developing school guidelines for dealing with cyberbullying and cyberbullies and providing counseling to victims and perpetrators.

Role of the School

School districts may require schools to adhered to district-wide policies to deal with bullying. States also have their own laws and policies around bullying in schools. School personnel may be required to report cyberbullying to law enforcement. Schools may be required by the state to train staff on how to identify and report bullying and help students respond to bullying. Some states may require schools to report to law enforcement on and off campus incidents of bullying and cyberbullying of member of protected groups such gay, lesbian, or transgender students, or minority students.

School social workers are able to assess incidents of cyberbullying from a person in environment perspective. They take students’ micro and mezzo environments, and strengths and risk factors, into account when deciding how best to help a victim or bully. At the mezzo level, school social workers are instrumental in developing school wide prevention and intervention efforts. They can engage students as a community and as peers in recognizing the risks and effects, both legal and social, of cyberbullying. A school wide approach may involve training students on why it is important to report incidents of cyberbullying and how to report these incidents. It may also involve social emotional learning and curricula.

School social workers have also been involved in developing a restorative justice response to bullying. Bullies will sit down with their victims to express their remorse and how they can make things right by the victim and the larger school community   Some experts warn, however, that in cases of bullying restorative justice practice that bring the victim and victimized together, if not done right, can further traumatize the victim (Byers, Mishna, and Solo, 2019).

Interventions and Programs for Cyberbullying

It is important that school social workers and clinical social workers are aware of evidence-based interventions and programs that help victims and that help the larger school community respond to bullying and cyberbullying. Nickerson (2017) notes that at the high school level research suggests teacher delivered programs to prevent bullying and cyberbullying are less successful than programs that change social norms and school culture, involve peer influence and leadership, and emphasize bystander intervention.

Bullying Prevention in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (BP-PBIS) is an evidence-based program that “involves establishing schoolwide rules, teaching social responsibility skills, delivering lessons about gossip, inappropriate remarks, and cyber bullying, supervising behavior, and providing faculty follow up in both elementary and middle schools” (Good, McIntosh, & Gietz, 2011).

Another effective approach school social workers and school personnel have employed involves engaging students involved in incidents of cyberbullying in researching the problem, gathering data on the problem as it pertains to their school community. They will then present those findings to the larger school community either online or in person (Paul, 2012). From group projects and research, students can also come up with a list of resources for victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying.

Della Cioppa, O’Neil, & Craig (2015) reviewed evaluations of a number of cyberbullying prevention programs not just in the United States, but also around the world. The authors found the most effective cyberbullying programs engaged parents and used a whole school community-based approach. The authors suggested using technology and social media to educate students about cyberbullying. They also note it is important to have a “champion” within the school, like a school psychologist or social worker, who develops cyberbullying guidelines and education. It is important these policies and procedures becomes embedded in the school culture.

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

School Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

July 2019

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