Using Prevention Science To Address Cyberbullying

Focus on the individuals rather than the devices, and more strategies to address the causes of bad behavior online.



When something traumatic happens at a school, our collective response is “Why?” It’s a natural response. We feel that if there’s a defined reason, we can stop it from happening again. But our need for understanding can push us to find explanations in the wrong places.

For example, when educators are faced with students’ online transgressions and cyberbullying, we often seek solutions by strengthening filters, holding an assembly, or banning games at school. However, those actions don’t address the underlying risk factors, or encourage protective factors, against those behaviors. We must pause and ask ourselves, "Why?"

Prevention science, used in numerous disciplines, seeks to prevent dysfunctional human behavior and resulting trauma. It identifies individual risk and protective factors in behaviors including violence, substance abuse, and mental health. Understanding these factors can help organizations create programs and policies that directly confront underlying causes.

For instance, the media often suggest a link between violent video games and violent behavior. However, the data shows no evidence to support that connection. According to the Centers for Disease Control, risk factors for violence include emotional distress, exposure, low parental involvement, and social rejection by peers. Video games aren’t a factor. However, when media and lawmakers believe they are, time and resources are shifted to find a solution that isn’t attached to a problem.

This disconnect between cause and effect is also found in the government's D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) initiative to address substance abuse. Police officers would educate students about different substances and their effects. D.A.R.E. made the false correlation that substance abuse is cause by a lack of information. In fact, it can be caused by a number of risk factors, including drug availability, poverty, and child abuse and neglect. An anti-poverty program and policies to encourage safe disposal of opioids would better address the problem.

School librarians can use prevention science to address cyberbullying in their communities as well. 

Consider a scenario of students afterschool who cyberbully each other while playing Minecraft.

Banning Minecraft afterschool is the easy response. But it doesn’t address risk factors; it redirects the problem rather than solving it. Librarians should focus less on the devices and more on the individuals.

We should ask: What is driving this behavior? Is it a way to deal with the stress of the school day? Are the ones doing the bullying also being bullied? Are these students not having their physical needs met? Are they hungry, tired?

Librarians can create protective factors against cyberbullying, such as encouraging early learning, facilitating positive peer interactions, and providing opportunities for students to engage in their community.

There is also a connection between unsupervised access and unhealthy digital behaviors. Fostering positive peer relationships and running an afterschool program that provides social opportunities away from screens may also help.

Other suggestions for protective strategies:

  • Encourage volunteering. Offer a library volunteer program to help youth engage in the library. Post information about volunteer opportunities in the community and speak to students about them.
  • Partner with behavioral health organizations to help adolescents develop coping skills for online and offline behaviors. Partner with a nonprofit for classes and resources. Know where to direct adolescents who are dealing with problems.
  • Supervise technology. Set limits on devices and encourage students to put away their phones during certain library programs. Set aside some computers for homework use that can encourage students to focus on just one task online.
  • Empower students to limit device use night and remove devices from their bedrooms. The National Sleep Foundation reports that sleep-deprived adolescents have increased irritability and impulsivity, along with higher risk of anxiety, stress, and other problems. The blue light from screens inhibits melatonin production, affecting sleep.
  • Create a campaign, and include students in promoting protective factors. Peers are highly influenced by one another.

To learn more about prevention science and find resources, see the National Prevention Science Coalition and to find evidence-based programs see Blueprints Programs.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, CEO of Digital Respons-Ability, presented at the November 8 SLJ/ISTE webcast Digital Citizenship for Tweens and Teens.

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