Nearly half of all kids have been bullied online. Cybersafety expert Marian Merritt talks to us about the “enormously important” role teachers have to play in keeping students safe.
What’s so wrong with the Internet?
There’s nothing wrong with the Internet – the problems on the Internet are people. It’s a reflection of the bad impulses among society in general. You have crime in the real world; you have crime on the Internet.
Why are kids in particular danger?
When it comes to kids, what people don’t realise is that because they use technology much differently, they encounter things that many of us can’t imagine would happen. And when they do run into something odd online, they may not feel comfortable telling an adult because they won’t understand and will take the technology away. That’s common. The Internet is supposed to make our lives better but it has a dark side, and unless we take the proper precautions, this wonderful tool can end up causing us more harm than good.
What do you see as the main online safety concerns?
Clearly, there are the ‘older’ problems like viruses, worms and spyware, that’s all still there. We’ve just hit the one million malware mark, meaning there are more than one million unique types of malicious viruses out there. In general, however, people aren’t paying these as much attention because anti-virus software, for the most part, takes care of that. There’s spam, of course. Eighty per cent of email is now spam, where criminals are trying to get your money by sending this flood of get-rich-quick junk mail. And the problem is we’re all greedy, aren’t we? If enough people respond, it keeps them going. Cyberbullying is an increasing problem and kids using social networking is a concern. We can talk to them about privacy but, generally, they don’t understand. They say they’re just communicating with their friends. But if they’re your friends then they don’t need to post their phone number!
When it comes to online safety, what part do teachers have to play?
Teachers have an enormously important role. Not only do they monitor the class environment – in terms of how kids use technology and guide them to appropriate resources – they are also such a tremendous resource for parents, who often don’t understand technology or know where to go for help. If they could ask a teacher and she was ready with advice, a website or a brochure, that would be enormously powerful.
You deal a lot with teachers. What are they asking you?
Cyberbullying comes up all the time. There’s data showing that 43 per cent of kids have been bullied online. In the old days, if a child got bullied at school at least when they went home it stopped, but now the bullying is 24/7 and it absolutely affects the classroom
environment. There are children sitting in their seat afraid to talk because the whole night long they were receiving horrible emails from their peers – they’re not ready to learn. So, teachers want to know how they can help. For a long time, at least in the US, schools were saying that cyberbullying happened at home. We’re very focused here on ‘freedom of speech’, for example, so people said they couldn’t address this because it’s freedom of speech. We are so far beyond that now. And schools get it. They see how it can damage the school day. More and more schools are actually requiring students to sign an anti-bullying pledge at the beginning of the year, which generates awareness among the kids that there’s zero tolerance.
Do kids recognise cyberbullying? Do they see sending a nasty email message in the same way as, say, grabbing someone and taking their money?
That’s a good point. If you ask children if they’ve ever been cyberbullied they’ll say no. But if you phrase it slightly differently and ask if they’re ever seen a nasty email message sent about somebody else, every hand goes up. They may not recognise it as bullying because, even if it bothered them, they don’t want to admit. They want to feel as though they can solve their own problems. The other issue is often the perpetrator will say it was ‘just a joke’, especially boys. On the other hand, girls tend to gang up on each other. They can be quite cruel. The reality is cyberbullying can be much more harmful to these kids than traditional, physical bullying. There’s no respite. You go home and it’s still going on. Even if you were to move school it follows you and other kids will find out about it.
What can be done to tackle cyberbullying?
There needs to be zero tolerance. As a parent, I get fed up when other parents say: “Oh my kid did it as a joke”. When I was a child, if I was rude to my teacher, my parents would have stood up for the teacher. I don’t know what’s happened between this generation and my parents’. I don’t want to send kids to jail for mistakes made on a website but I do think letters of apology and publicly saying you’re sorry go a long way. I don’t know why we can’t arrange that sort of thing. I also think we need to talk about
cybercitizenship more, which is the focus of the NetSafe programme. We need to tell
children “if you wouldn’t say it in person, you’ve no business saying it online”.
What do you mean by ‘cybercitizenship’?
It’s taking the same good behaviour you have in the real world with you when you go online. If you wouldn’t steal in the real world, why are you stealing music online? That’s a really tough message. Children watch our behaviour – if we’re downloading music peer-to-peer, you better believe your kids will. It’s about ethics and morality.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing schools?
Awareness among administrators. Everyone seems so focused on legal issues and risk reduction – I believe that’s the wrong end of the stick. Often I hear people saying: “I don’t really want computers in the classroom unless they’re completely secure, unless they’re completely filtered, unless the teachers promise that they will use Google for search but not Google images.” There’s this belief that if schools ‘wall off’ the Internet to a very small piece then ‘I’m safe as an administrator’ – but we know that’s simply not the case. The reason I say it’s the wrong end of the stick is because there’s so much wonderful creativity that can happen as a result of the Internet and technology. Imagine you’re a 10-year-old boy who’s never been one to speak up in class, but you’re asked to write a skit explaining how the country was founded. Even if he’s not the one on camera, if he gets to create and put something together and put it on YouTube, the sense of pride children feel at a very young age is really remarkable.
What should schools be doing to help teachers?
They definitely want to give teachers the resources to make sure that going online in the classroom is safe, to make sure teachers are protected if something odd were to happen, like a kid manages to get around a filter or looks at something inappropriate in the classroom. Too often I think we blame the teacher and I think we need to calm down a bit – maybe it’s a US phenomenon but we’ve had a few problems in that area. And we really need to celebrate those teachers who are using technology in creative ways to enhance the classroom experience. Today’s classroom is so different from what you and I experienced, and I think those teachers really stand out as role models.
What’s your advice to those wanting to do better?
It’s really important to get more communication going. Kids are online 10 times as much as we realise. They have a lot of access to the Internet. That’s why it really makes it necessary that we talk to kids about the ‘rules of the road’, how to behave online.
Even if they’re not tech-savvy, adults have life experience. My advice to teachers and parents is Google yourself, your kids, their friends. Visit social networking sites, learn how to use the privacy settings, and help the kids make it safer. If you’ve completely disconnected from the digital age as a teacher or parent, and you’re not even bothering, you don’t talk to them about this, then kids really do have a false sense of privacy about what they’re doing. If kids think there’s even a possibility you might see things, they’re going to think twice. I would like to see teachers sit down and have what we call ‘the talk’ – they can actually do it as a classroom exercise. I love it when the kid leads the conversation, so it’s more of a peer-to-peer discussion. Talk about what everyone’s doing on the Internet. Find out what are the coolest sites, sit and watch, ask how they win, how they got so good, go through the experience. Then bring up the topic of cyberbullying. Ask them if they’ve ever seen any nasty emails, or have there been any problems at school. Again, you’re not saying they were involved, you just want to talk about it and want to know if it’s affecting the school environment. It’s amazing how many kids are experiencing it and terrified to tell their parents because they’ll over react. They think they’ll call up the school and make a big fuss. Kids do want to handle these things themselves.
Do you recommend people start a MySpace, Facebook or Bebo page, or something similar?
I do, whole-heartedly. I think that teachers and parents should join gaming sites and create a social networking page. Better yet, ask the kids to help you set it up. Ask them to demonstrate how to make it more private – which will show you that they actually know. If they say they don’t know, check it out together. Again, this is good communication. You will get resistance, especially from an older child, but it’s just one more way to stay connected in your child’s life. However, do it judiciously. Don’t get involved in their friends’ lives – don’t ‘friend’ all the teenagers in their community.
You attended the NetSafe conference in Queenstown. What were your impressions on what’s happening in New Zealand?
I would say that you guys are far ahead of the game in a number of ways. First of all, you’ve got an amazing organisation in NetSafe and I highly recommend teachers use it as a resource because from fun little videos to really good educational information, there’s a lot there. Then you had organised an international conference with more than 100 people from all around the world, sharing cutting-edge research about what kids are doing online and what’s happening with technology. There was some great data. So, it really wasn’t just New Zealanders talking about New Zealand, we had a real international community. I think this is the first conference I’ve gone to of that type.
What do you think the next couple of years will hold for online safety?
What we’re already seeing is the growth in devices; people are using more and more devices for accessing the Internet. If we’re only focusing on putting security software on the desktop or talking to our kids about filters on the family computer and not educating them about the wider common sense issues we’ve talked about, we’ll miss a lot. I think we need to focus on the child and not the technology. It’s not technology that we should be worried about, it’s people.
Marian Merritt was talking to INTERFACE Editor Greg Adams.
© INTERFACE February 2009
Jill Hammonds Posted: 25/05/2010 8:33 AM
Kathy Lauridsen Posted: 22/05/2010 7:40 AM
Some great action to take over this serious issue. I love the fact that parents and teachers both infact need to take the responsiblity to teach our children about cybercitizenship. I can bring a lot of this material into my classroom in a non threatening manner and then I plan to introduce it to the parents. Bullying is bullyiny without a doubt.
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