Cyber safety

How safe are our students online? How does your school address cyber safety? What more should be done to address the issue?

Peer Support Systems
One effective strategy to address cyber safety is for schools to put in place peer support programmes that encourage students to be involved in the process. Allow me to share one such programme that I was looking at as part of my master’s programme.

Hutson et al(2007) describe a peer intervention strategy in which a email support group was set up in an all boys school to encourage victims to voice their concerns. While students provided support, they were monitored and assisted in procedures to maintain anonymity by their teachers involvement.

This programme worked well in particular because of the nature of the students’ and schools needs. Boys tend to be less inclined to share intimate information in face to face situations (Valkenburg & Peter, 2009) This programme allowed both peer supporters and victims to remain anonymous and free to explore feelings and thoughts in a safe environment. Socially stressed students are also more likely to share in such an online environment (Valkenburg and Peter 2009)

Students in the middle school age also tend to be at a developmental stage when they are trying to distance themselves from their parents as they develop their own adult identity in interaction with peers (Valkenburg & Peter, 2009a). Most surveys have highlighted the fact that victims of bullying rarely reveal their plight to adults. Couple this with the fact that cyber bullying is less obvious than traditional bullying especially as it often takes place at home, even when it is an extension of bullying in school. Parents are often not aware of the situation and this leaves the victim more isolated (Aoyama, Saxon, & Fearon, 2011). A programme of peer support will provide a safe outlet for students to voice concerns.

Students who tend to be victimised continuously in bullying cases tend to be less resilient and resort to isolating themselves, focusing on self blame and suffering in silence (Cowie, 2011). They tend to be adversely affected when they seek social support from their peers, partly because they are seen as too needy (Cowie, 2011). The anonymity of a email support system would encourage these students to voice their concerns.

Peer support positively impacts school climate when solutions to conflicts may arise naturally out of peer interactions. This could work particularly if we can target the various groups of people who are essentially bystanders in the bullying case. These include assistants to the bullies, outsiders and defenders of the victims (Cowie 2011). When setting up a peer support group, many of these students will be encouraged to participate as they see it as something tangible and positive that they can do in the situation (Hutson et al 2007). This process of addressing bullying incidents also demonstrates to students, both victims and bystanders, that some of the solution to bullying lies within themselves (Hutson et al 2007). Even bullies volunteered to be involved in the peer support programme, recognising and wishing to make redress for their previous actions (Cowie, 2011).

Hutson et al (2007) points out that only 17% of students will actively and spontaneously act as defenders of a victim. This reluctance of the bystander to get involved stems mainly from the power of the social environment to inhabit shows of empathy. Peer support groups have the potential to encourage a positive perception of victims and develop a sense of moral responsibility amongst students by developing a more positive social environment.

A by-product of such a programme may be that isolated youth find a voice and a way to develop their self-confidence and self-esteem as they interact with their peers. Valderburg and Peter (2009a) point out that online self-disclosure improves the quality of friendships. Although this survey result actually related to the quality of friendships that already exist, it is possible that the experience of opening themselves up in the environment of supportive peers would develop a similar type of confidence among normally reticent and isolated youth. I haven’t as yet come across any studies that show this conclusively though.

In this particular email peer support scheme, Hutson et al (2007) report substantial benefits as school climate improved, the negative impact of bullying was reduced and students reported that they felt it was more acceptable to report abuse.

Aoyama, I., Saxon, T. F., & Fearon, D. D. (2011). Internalizing problems among cyberbullying victims and moderator effects of friendship quality. Multicultural Education and Technology Journal , 5 (2), 92-105.

Cowie, H. (2011). Peer Support as an Intervention to Counteract School Bullying: Listen to the Children. Children and Society , 25, 287-292.

Hutson, C., & Cowie, H. (2007). Setting up an Email Peer Support Scheme. Pastoral Care in Education , 25 (4), 12-16.

Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2009). Social Consequences of the Internet for Adolescents. Current Directions in Psychological Science , 18 (1), pp. 1-5.

Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2009a). The Effects of Instant Messaging on the Quality of Adolescents’ Existing Friendships: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Communication , 59, 79-97.


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