School bullies have been the scourge of classrooms since the beginning of organized education. It's such a pervasive issue that the US federal government sponsors an entire initiative aimed at solving the problem. There's even been a push to cover bullying and cyberbullying prevention in teacher training programs, all the way up to Masters-level coursework. But as most teachers know, bullying wouldn't be so difficult to solve if it ended at the schoolyard gate.
That's because teachers have a hard time intervening when bullying extends outside the classroom. And in today's hyper-connected world, victims often feel trapped when their tormentors can find them online and continue to harass them at all hours of the day and night. And in those cases, teachers can't stop what they can't see.
For that reason, the sudden shift to online education made necessary by COVID-19 brought with it fears of a whole new wave of cyberbullying. But now, almost a year on, and there's no evidence that's happening. There's even anecdotal evidence that online schooling is having the opposite effect. To explain it, here's a look at why online schools don't tend to foster bullying like in-person schools do.
In most instances of cyberbullying, the initial events that lead to a problem don't happen online. They tend to happen in group social settings. This is made possible by a tendency toward peer contagion, through which a bully influences their peers to join them in harassing a target or stand silent while they do so.
In a digital setting, though, peer contagion doesn't happen that way. Because students only congregate with a teacher present, and never in the same physical space, it's less likely that a group dynamic that allows for bullying will form. In other words, there is no unchecked socializing involved and students have natural digital boundaries that prevent them from becoming a target of the larger group.
Intentionality in Interactions
Likewise, a lack of day-to-day socializing in an online schooling environment also yields another effect that suppresses bullying. It's that students have to pick and choose who they'll talk to throughout each day. There's no casual contact between students that may not see eye to eye, which prevents some of the situations that often lead to bullying.
This also gives would-be victims of bullying far more control over their school social circle. They can, for example, prevent other students they may not get along with from contacting them online at all or at least limit interactions to when there's a teacher present. In an online setting, a bully can't simply corner them on the playground or in the lunchroom. And if they're not part of their target's social circle, they lose any opportunity to start a conflict.
Activity Monitoring Tools
Last but not least, teachers have access to some valuable tools that help them to sniff out and intervene before bullying can take root in their digital classes. Most major online teaching platforms, like Google For Education and others, provide teachers the ability to monitor students' online behavior during classes. In the case of a platform like Lightspeed Systems Classroom, they can limit access to distracting sites and view students' screens in real-time. They can even be notified of any unusual activity so they can intervene before an incident occurs.
And when students use school-issued hardware, teachers might have the benefit of even tighter control of how students behave. Many schools use solutions like GoGuardian to manage their students' laptops and tablets, giving teachers insight into what their students do online, even when no class is in session. And the system can alert teachers and other school staff if any of their students start exhibiting at-risk behaviors, like searching for information about self-harm, weapons, and mental health topics. Even though they still have to be careful to approach such subjects with care, it's another intervention opportunity that in-classroom teachers don't usually get.
Maximizing the Benefits
Oddly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic could have provided teachers with a rare opportunity to stop bullying in their classrooms even when in-person schooling resumes. With the digital advantages they now enjoy while teaching remotely, teachers can and should be taking the opportunity to educate their students about bullying. They can highlight how much better the situation is while students are working from home, and challenge their students to keep things positive and friendly when normal schooling resumes.
Doing so will help teachers to use this long online-only period as a natural breakpoint to prevent future bullying problems. And if they do, they might finally find a solution to end one of education's longest-standing and pervasive problems. That would be yet another win for online education and a positive step on the road to a safer, more productive classroom environment for all.