Fighting against the digital bullyGRAND FORKS — “I have friends who’ve been cyber-bullied. I’ve seen relationships break up and Facebook fights that have gotten huge. It’s bad,” said Jessica Swanson, a senior at Grand Forks’ Red River High School.
By: Pamela Knudson, The Dickinson Press
GRAND FORKS — “I have friends who’ve been cyber-bullied. I’ve seen relationships break up and Facebook fights that have gotten huge. It’s bad,” said Jessica Swanson, a senior at Grand Forks’ Red River High School.
“People need to know the effects of cyber-bullying,” she said. “It’s wrong.”
Swanson is part of an effort to curb the practice that includes school district and city officials as well as middle and high school
Cyber-bullying — the use of technology such as the Internet and phone texting to harass or humiliate others — has become more common in recent years, as shown by Grand Forks School District and state surveys. Nearly one in five high school students and one in four middle school students say they’ve been victims.
“Bullying is not really new, but the way of doing it is new,” said Mary Lien, a character education and prevention coordinator with the district. “I’m not saying technology is advancing bullying, but there’s potential for escalation.”
The technology gives students a wider audience for their bullying tactics and, because messages are not conveyed face-to-face, it sometimes gives rise to more vicious attacks, raising the concern of educators and others.
Among Grand Forks students in grades nine through 12, 18.5 percent have been cyber-bullied in the past year, about the same as 2009, according to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the state Department of Public Instruction.
The statewide figure has climbed more than 3 percentage points, from 14.3 percent to 17.4 percent, since 2009.
Among Grand Forks students in grades seven and eight, 25.7 percent had been cyber-bullied in the past year, up almost 7 percentage points from 2009.
The Grand Forks figure is about equal to the statewide figure, which jumped almost 6 percentage points from 2009 to 2011.
“We know it’s serious,” said Norm Dutot, facilitator for the school district’s Youth Gaining Opportunities, Recognition and Success program. “Because of cyber-bullying, there have been suicides.”
Many kids are involved in Facebook, he said, and messages can be spread quickly and anonymously. Use of social media is filtering down to the elementary-school level, he said. “The problem is so extensive.”
Lien said she is aware of one North Dakota suicide linked to bullying. It hasn’t happened here in Grand Forks, she said, but “we have a lot of heartache.”
Hows and whys
With social media, students can’t see the effects of their messages.
“If I can’t see your face, it’s much easier to say things. I don’t really know the impact of my behavior,” Lien said. “There are no consequences for saying something mean; and without consequences there’s no remorse.
“It can really escalate beyond the child’s imagination.”
Terry Bohan, principal of Community High School, echoes that perspective. “I think it’s the remoteness of it,” he said.
Cyber-bullying is much more prevalent because it’s so accessible and messages get posted immediately, he said. “You can deliver the most nasty, mean-spirited, derogatory message to another person and within minutes it’s on their smartphone.”
And, with social media, the message spreads farther and faster than even the bully may intend.
“Everything is so open when it’s on Facebook,” said Swanson. “People can say whatever they want — bashing classmates, teachers, janitors — and they can’t take it back,” she said.
The Grand Forks School District is addressing the problem through the character-education framework established in 1998 when the district launched deliberate efforts to infuse expectations of respectful and responsible behavior into school culture.
The City of Grand Forks, the district, the Community Violence and Intervention Center, and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota are spearheading another effort through the “Safer Tomorrows” project, funded by a two-year, $2 million federal grant. The project is aimed at determining the extent of children’s exposure to violence in Grand Forks County and developing ways to address it.
The most important thing educators can do is emphasize the urgent need for critical thinking skills that prompt people to notice and point out bad behaviors, according to Lien.
“We’re in a very toxic culture right now,” she said, noting particularly negative political ad campaigns. “Campaigning has gotten ugly; to kids, it looks like bullying. What they see is hatred.”
Grand Forks students, like Swanson, also recognize the growing problem and are gearing up to tackle it through the Youth Commission, a 12-member student group representing the city’s middle and high schools and sanctioned by the mayor’s office.
The commission has targeted cyber-bullying and Internet safety as its top priority and plans to launch an awareness campaign soon.
“We want students to know there are people out there who don’t think this is cool, and you don’t have to follow the status quo,” said Mandi Egeland, a junior at Red River High School. “It’s our opportunity to share what we know and think is right.”
Knudson is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.