How to prevent – and help stop – cyberbullying: Certain steps can be taken to halt online abuse

Katie Braman
Katie Braman, St. Paul Academy and Summit School
Bailey Lindgren
Bailey Lindgren, associate at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center
Nancy Riestenberg
Nancy Riestenberg, school climate specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education

What started as an innocent group message on Facebook grew into a mean-spirited attack that left Lana Rubinstein feeling scared and isolated.

A senior at River Falls High School in Wisconsin, Rubinstein experienced cyberbullying by two fellow students via the social media network during her sophomore year. Messages were posted that disparaged her religion and threatened her safety.

“It is the whole idea of hiding behind a keyboard,” Rubinstein said. “If it was in person, they would not have said that. But the fact that they wrote things on Facebook, they thought it was okay.”

Knowing the bullying would not stop until she took action, Rubinstein, with the support of a couple friends, worked up the courage to tell her parents what was happening. They recommended she report the incident to a school counselor and a police liaison. Within a short period of time, the bullying stopped.

By taking appropriate measures—like Rubinstein did—teenagers can address the issue of cyberbullying and reduce the likelihood of being a victim, experts say.

Cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass, hurt, embarrass, humiliate or intimidate another person, according to a guide created by the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights’ (PACER) National Bullying Prevention Center, located in Bloomington. It can happen on social media, email, text messaging and website message boards, among other platforms.

With many teenagers using multiple platforms of social media—80 percent of teens who go online use social media networking websites, according to a 2013 National Bullying Prevention Center brochure—cyberbullying is becoming more common. Forty-three percent of teens have reported that they have experienced cyberbullying in recent years and 20 percent of students have admitted to cyberbullying others, according to the brochure from the National Bullying Prevention Center.

“We sometimes call cyberbullying the new bathroom wall,” said Bailey Lindgren, an associate at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. “Back in the day before technology, people who wanted to write hurtful messages would do it on the bathroom wall. Whereas now with cyberbullying, they do it on various social media platforms.”

Lindgren also said the number of cyberbullying incidents is growing for several reasons: cyberbullies can post on the Internet 24 hours per day, they can post anonymously, and they do not have to engage face-to-face, which makes it easier to do.

Preventing Cyberbullying

The National Bullying Prevention Center recommends steps that teens can take to prevent cyberbullying, including keeping their social media accounts private, having a secure password and not accepting or “friending” people they do not know.

“Teens should think about what they post, who will see it and where it might be seen,” Lindgren said. “Just because the Internet gives people the access to post whatever they want, it does not mean they should post it in a hurtful or harmful way.”

Lindgren also encourages teens to keep record of the post by printing it or taking a screenshot. If cyberbullying persists, she said, teens should talk to a parent, teacher or trusted adult.

Rubinstein reinforced this advice.

“Tell parents, tell adults, tell trusted people that care about you,” she said. “Don’t keep it to yourself.”

The National Bullying Prevention Center indicates that online safety is a shared responsibility, and that teens who see others being cyberbullied should take action.

“An essential step is to not ‘like,’ share or comment on the post,” Lindgren said. “Reach out to the person who is being bullied, let them know they are not alone and that you are there for them. Showing support is both important and valuable.”

In April 2014, Governor Mark Dayton signed into legislation the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Law, which protects students who are bullied or cyberbullied. The legislation encourages schools to train students to intervene in and report incidents of prohibited conduct. Lindgren emphasized that teens need to be aware that this law protects them and that bullying is not acceptable in or out of school.

Nancy Riestenberg, the school climate specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education, studies and promotes restorative practices that help school communities and students mend the harm done by bullying. She believes that this approach helps students be responsible and accountable for their actions, and also helps them with problem solving.

“Restorative practices give us ways to help [an individual] who has done something really mean to repair the harm that he or she has done,” Riestenberg said. “These practices give us the opportunity to hold [the bully] accountable in a way that builds empathy.”

A 2014 pamphlet titled “Restorative Approaches to Conflict in Schools,” written by Richard Hendry, Belinda Hopkins, and Brian Steele, states that students can learn to handle differences and conflicts without resorting to bullying by creating respectful school environments. Repairing, maintaining and building relationships are important elements in restorative approaches.

“Each individual human being has a responsibility to try to support someone else in being kind,” Riestenberg said.

Being a Victim

While being cyberbullied, Rubinstein had low self-esteem and doubted her self-worth, she said. She did not feel comfortable around people.

When death threats were made against her, she realized the cyberbullying was escalating to an alarming level. With the help of a police liaison officer at her school, she printed off all the Facebook messages to provide a record of what was written and posted about her.

“During school, when it was first brought to the attention of the administration and police was awkward,” Rubinstein said. “[The school] talked with the students’ parents about it, but personally I didn’t see there being much punishment in the long run.”

After the incident, she did “unfriend” the two cyberbullies on Facebook and did her best to move on.

“I have friends who helped me get through it and that was very nice to have,” Rubinstein said. “I just tried my best to ignore them and go on with my life.”