When bullying happens in person, it’s typically easy to recognize the signs, such as physical injuries or lost and destroyed belongings. But when it takes place online, it’s often brushed off.
More than half of Canadian youth between grades 4 and 11 who engage in cruel online behaviour say they are “just joking around,” reports PREVNet, a network of research scientists and youth organizations devoted to combatting bullying in Canada.
Yet compared to traditional bullying, cyberbullying can be far more severe, says Nimmi Kanji, director of TELUS Wise, the telecommunication company’s free digital-literacy education program. “It can happen around the clock and have an unlimited audience.”
To help make a difference, TELUS has been one of WE’s long-time partners, contributing more than $26-million since 2007. Much of the funding has gone to WE Rise Above, a WE Schools campaign that helps raise awareness about the seriousness of online bullying, while inspiring youth to take action and end this negative cycle of behaviour.
This fall, TELUS’s support will also go to new WE Rise Above grants, which will offer $2,000 to 10 schools to help implement anti-bullying action plans. The program has inspired students to take action against bullying, as two schools in Canada have witnessed firsthand.
“Cyberbullying is probably one of the largest issues affecting young people. They all have to deal with it in some capacity,” says Tania McPhee, an educator at Craig Kielburger Secondary School in Milton, Ont., who has led curriculum-focused WE Rise Above programming.
Despite the prevalence of the issue, however, students don’t always know what behaviours fit the definition. Many assume cyberbullying is like traditional bullying, just done online, such as calling people names or spreading rumours, McPhee explains. “We wanted to teach that cyberbullying can be a lot of things, such as hurtful polls on Instagram – like, ‘Who would you date?’ or ‘Who’s a better friend?’” she says. It can also be sharing embarrassing photos or pictures someone didn’t know were taken.
To educate students and create a safe space for sharing stories, McPhee organized a schoolwide assembly and invited neighbouring schools to join. “There wasn’t anyone in the group who hadn’t been, in some way, cyberbullied.”
The assembly also addressed how each student could be an “upstander,” instead of a bystander, providing ways to safely intervene if they witness bullying. Research shows that bystanders are present in 90 per cent of bullying incidents, and when peers intervene, in most cases, the bullying stops within 10 seconds. Being an upstander can also mean providing comfort and support to someone being bullied or reporting it to a trusted adult.
Beyond educating students on cyberbullying, the WE Rise Above program aims to motivate youth to spark change. To that end, McPhee recently issued a summer challenge to her school, to start an Instagram account that “contributes to a positive media culture.” Students could post about how to feel more self-confident, for example, or other topics they care about.
The goal is to show students that their online feed can be what they make it, she says. “Instead of tearing people down and spreading negative messaging, we’re using social media for good.”
At École William McDonald Middle School in Yellowknife, NWT, there’s a very visible daily reminder that no bullying will be allowed: The lunchroom wall is adorned with handprints of students who’ve pledge they won’t be a bully – verbally, physically or online.
“They draw their hand in September, and if they honour their Anti-Bullying Pledge, they paint it purple at the end of the year,” says educator Mélanie Parisella, who has led curriculum-focused WE Rise Above programming. She was inspired by the Hands & Words Are Not for Hurting Project. The U.S. organization chose the colour purple to represent an inclusive community “blind to the colour of skin, age, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or nationality.”
As part of their vow, students also commit to being a friend to classmates in need. If someone is bullied at lunchtime, for example, they can confide in a peer who has taken this pledge, so they can find a group of allies to sit with. Those supporters can also observe the situation and help the bullied student get help, Parisella explains.
Through a creative project, Yellowknife students also wanted to raise awareness about the emotional impact of bullying and produced a short video. In the black-and-white short, they shield their faces with their hands, which are scrawled with a series of painful experiences. “They sent me e-mails, saying I was worthless,” one reads. Another: “They made fun of how I looked.”
Soon, the upsetting messages give way to uplifting ones, including, “I found true friends” and “Now I’m accepted.” The final takeaway – “Hope exists, stay strong” – cuts to an image of the handprint-covered lunchroom wall. The video was so moving, it was screened at the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. But most importantly, it resonated with students at École William McDonald Middle School, inspiring even more to take the pledge and join the movement.