Cyber-bullying and Managing Policy Dilemmas

Schools are expected to deal with the high-tech problem of teenager cruelty to one another in cyberbullying and similar abuses that often begin after-school or in the home but spill over students in school (see post of July 1, 2010). Parents expect school officials to restrict use of cellphones, iPods, laptops, and other devices to prevent such abuse and, when necessary, intervene to protect children and youth.

Yet that expectation clashes with one in which parents, employers, educators, and voters also expect schools to use the newest technologies—often the very same devices–so that students could learn more, faster, and better. They expect that students using these new devices will be ready to enter the labor market fully equipped to manage technological demands of jobs.

Where this conflict in societal expectations pinches even more is the accelerating use of high tech devices by the young. Since children and youth typically watch screens daily (TV, cell phones, laptops, and other hand-held devices) that screen time has grown from over 6 hours a day in 2004 to nearly 8 hours a day in 2009 (or over 53 hours a week excluding screen time done in school). Moreover, since teenage use of social media approaches the point of utter dependency upon the devices–see my post of June 17, 2010–-should parents, voters, and educators encourage children to spend even more time on screens in schools?

The question plumbs to the heart of a significant policy dilemma.

Voters and parents want schools to expose students to the most recent technologies to advance their learning and job readiness. Yet because of compulsory attendance laws school administrators and teachers are legally bound and morally responsible to prevent high-tech abuses (stopping access to certain websites, cyberbullying, etc.). When abuses do occur, school officials must intervene.

What makes the dilemma even thornier are other values that parents, children, and educators want schools to protect but further complicate matters: a student’s privacy from governmental intrusion (one parent sued a school for suspending his daughter after she posted a cruel video filmed after school about a classmate). Yet parents also want schools to protect their sons and daughters from unsavory texting and Internet activities.

And then there is the matter of how much time should children and teenager spend looking at screens day and night? What is too much time? Parents have to thread their way through conflicting opinions from Ph.D-heavy experts.

So in market-driven, voter-dependent democracy, what typically happens when there is a thicket of rival values that different stakeholders seek to satisfy, expert opinion is divided, and resources are limited?

No surprise that when rival public and private values compete for policy attention, there is no one solution that wise policymakers can offer to resolve the matter. Just think of major policy conflicts such as the BP oil spill, U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan, and the downturn in the U.S. economy. Elected officials offer a broad range of “solutions” to each of these issues. Yet anyone over the age of 30 knows that each of the “solutions” seldom “solves” the problem because that problem had appeared earlier been “solved” yet returned again: Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (1989) and earlier BP spills (2007); U.S. policy in Afghanistan for nearly a decade; the Great Depression of 1929 and severe recessions in the 1970s and 1980s before 2008.

In each instance, then, policymakers figured out compromises among the competing values that gained public support and moved ahead knowing that the compromise was good enough to take care of one slice of the dilemma (but not the entire one) and would have to be renegotiated later.

And that is true for the dilemma of conflicting expectations over the use and abuse of high tech in and out of public schools.

So let me inventory the possible compromises to this policy conflict.

1. Wait for the courts to resolve the conflicts
2. Call a halt to the use of high tech devices in schools
3. Slice the dilemma into solvable problems and muddle through each part, knowing that the conflict will arise again
4. Do nothing

Options 2 and 4 won’t happen because public schools in a democracy are vulnerable—maybe the word “responsive” is better– to crosscutting pressures from varied constituencies. As a result, school officials, dependent upon financial support for school levies and bond referenda, cannot do nothing when parents and voters expect schools to prepare graduates for college and jobs—both requiring technological skills. They will do something visible, even tangible to show that actions have been taken.

Option 1 requires no action from school boards and superintendents. They simply say the matter is out of their hands and they have to wait for judges to resolve the issue.

Option 3 is what school officials generally choose. They slice and dice the conflict into pieces that are manageable. Cyber-bullying, for example, is a problem that can be handled by curriculum lessons in regular classrooms, informational meetings with parents, students individually meeting with counselors, bringing high tech experts to meet with students, etc.

Option 3 is the familiar compromise struck by most schools to manage the fallout from cyber-bullying incidents.

Like federal and state officials facing complex conflicts over competing values in Afghanistan, BP oil spills, and the Great Recession of 2008, school officials can point to much action and movement yet the basic dilemma over conflicting expectations about what schools should do goes largely unaddressed.

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5 Comments

Filed under technology use

5 responses to “Cyber-bullying and Managing Policy Dilemmas

  1. I’m glad you sliced up the problem fairly.

    Rather than droning on about how I have handled the last ten years teaching my students to be civil, let me say first that if the ed community wishes to lay claim to new territory in law enforcement, their practical ability do do so is limited.

    Schools need desperately to learn when to stop accepting responsibility for things they can’t change. In particular, the propensity for confusing or conflating things and processes that are complex with those that are simple.

    The ability to time shift behavior is new and our model for understanding while not at fault, confuses our model for controlling. The motion picture and music industries are a perfect model for observing how badly things can go wrong when our understanding of why what is happening differs from reality.

    So-called “cyber bullying” is a strategy. Imagine that as a 5th grader in the 1950s I could write several insults, place them in envelopes at a business on the way to or from home, causing my victim to open the envelopes at times of my choosing. Imagine, then my teacher, Miss Starke taking responsibility for monitoring and punishing me. The only way she could do it would be to take control of the business, robbing me of the time shifting service.

    Or, she could help me become a better person and let someone else be responsible for the rest.

  2. Chan Bliss

    You left out #5: Educators.

    Teachers, Administrators, and School Boards need to take charge of this. And do in the best interest of the children they are charged with educating.

    Here is what we do. In kindergarten we issue laptops to the families. In exchange, parents are asked to come to a few weekend or evening classes. Begin teaching families how to be good digital citizens. The next year schools have one-to-one in first grade and kindergarten. This continues till all families are trained in good digital citizenship.

    Will this work for all? Of course not. What doe? But will most families learn? I’m sure that they will.

    Why start in kindergarten? Well, you have to start somewhere and in kindergarten few students have learned any bad habits. In kindergarten, one of the things that teachers focus on is getting along with others so digital citizenship would tie right into the curriculum.

  3. Technology, like it or not, is a given in our society. We would be well advised to admit that there are health hazards related to it, some of which are mental health hazards. There was a time when smoking was also all around us and somehow we had the social will to address it with education and some regulation.

    I cringe at adding one more thing to the education agenda but digital literacy would be a natural addition. Digital literacy isn’t just about risky behavior online. It encompasses all aspects of coding and decoding. That said, addressing risky behavior is a great place to start, especially if you are in the k12 education business. As we adopt more “stuff” and move toward integrating technology into teaching and learning, it makes sense that we begin with a conversation about what positive Internet behavior consists of. It also makes sense to connect this conversation to the other pro-social conversations we have already begun and demystify the “new” risky behavior.

    It begins at home and on the playground. We can either ignore the risky behavior we observe or we can address it with thoughtful conversation and intervention. We need to help our youth develop the language for keeping themselves safe from threats of abuse and exploitation, whether it is happening in their own home, on the street, on the playground or on the Internet.

    Sadly, I guess this is an option 3 in your model under muddling.

  4. here is what happened to my daughter, she is a 3 sport athlete, and honor role student. She had a few mean spirited girls who decided to go over the coaches head and bring a picture of my 17 year old daughter holding a cigar. The AD armed with this picture suspended my daughter for 25 days off the lacrosse team, based on a breach of the athletic code of conduct. This crushed my daughter, as she had to explain how this picture ,,downloaded from another girls FB site, not my daughters site, posted months prior and taken 8 months earlier. These cyber bullies were helped in their efforts to ridicule my daughter, by the school themselves. She was tried, sentenced on this pic. Then when the original mean girl who brought the pic forward originally, was caught w/ a pic in the same way. Only then did the school rescind the FB policy as proof. Meanwhile my daughter was punished but her accuser gets nothing ,they have rewarded the bully. Does any body know if I should sue these jerks. My daughter continues to get verbal crap every day !

    • larrycuban

      I am sorry to hear about your daughter’s difficulties, Jim. I have no advice for you. I do wonder what your daughter learned from this experience.

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