What to do about (cyber)bullying? Systemic intervention and prevention in schools

In order to explore a new approach to combatting (cyber)bullying, the German Awareness Centre klicksafe and the multi-level programme Conflict-CULTURE teamed up to develop a new teaching material.

2017-03-30 German Safer Internet Centre

This new resource merges, for the first time, fields otherwise treated separately – namely, prevention of violence, bullying intervention and media education – into interdisciplinary instruction materials about intervention methods and systemic conflict management in schools. The new handbook contributes to a more professional response, enabling children and adolescents to avoid suffering and to develop pro-socially. Since bullying and cyberbullying are two sides of the same coin, expert knowledge on the prevention of violence and on media education was essential to the conception of the material.

Key assumptions

The approach is based on three key assumptions, as further outlined below.

  • From bullying to (cyber)bullying
    Digital media play an important role in the everyday lives of children and adolescents; to a significant extent, communication among young people today is conducted online. Likewise, conflicts are no longer restricted to analogue encounters but are increasingly played out by digital means. Bullying occurs today, in the majority of cases, not only in the context of direct personal contact, but also on the internet, in social media, and via mobile phone. Practically speaking, there is hardly any bullying today without the "cyber" prefix. When children and teenagers are being bullied, it often takes both analogue and digital form, since the analogue and digital worlds of those involved are so seamlessly intertwined as to be perceived as one entity. (Cyber)bullying arises particularly in groups that are not formed by one's own choice and therefore cannot easily be escaped, such as school classes. But wherever and whenever damage is done to individuals, a response is necessary; school administrators and teachers must intervene in order to recognise and defuse conflicts.
  • Negotiating values and norms online and encouraging pro-social behaviour
    Even though formal rules apply online, young people do not always realise to what extent their behaviour conforms to or violates the values and norms that are in place. Particularly in the digital sphere, social regulation is poorly developed. Here, as in many social communities (school form, sports club, clique), an informal framework of values and norms often emerges, which in the case of (cyber)bullying clearly diverges from formal standards and sometimes exhibits inhumane tendencies. This makes it necessary to negotiate, again and again, the limits of free speech: when and how are they being overstepped so that values are violated? Children, adolescents and adults all require the capacity for non-violent self-assertion in order to protect themselves from infringements on their mental, social or physical integrity. In this context, pro-social behaviour plays a key role: pro-social behaviour is behaviour that gratifies our own basic needs but respects those of others as well. One of the main goals of each bullying prevention and intervention in schools is to increase pro-social behaviour and competences.
  • A new systemic approach on (cyber)bullying
    (Cyber)bullying always arises out of group dynamics and can only be understood from a systemic perspective that overcomes a simple bully-victim dichotomy. Usually, many different players contribute to form rather complex conflicts and help to maintain bullying surroundings. That is why a systemic intervention needs to include the whole group involved, their relations and communications structure, as well as their values and norms to achieve sustainable solutions. The main goal of each intervention is to de-escalate conflicts rather than identify and punish bullies and to re-establish formal pro-social values and norms in students' heads and hearts. A peer-to-peer system of support and help furthers caring for each other in the long run. To sum it up: in order to stop bullying and create a sustainable pro-social climate in schools, all players need to be involved when bullying occurs. A long-term commitment of teachers, involvement of the whole class and selected peer supporters help to achieve the goal of feeling empathy with others and cultivating pro-social behaviour.

Content of the new handbook
In the first chapter, the fundamental concepts and the overall approach are defined by the authors. Chapter 2 clarifies concepts and background knowledge on the topics of bullying, cyberbullying and (cyber)bullying. Particular attention is given to the dynamic of bullying and the specifics of bullying by digital means. In Chapter 3, two field-tested intervention methods are presented: systemic mobbing (the German expression for bullying) intervention (SMI) and systemic short intervention (SKI). Chapter 4 describes some of the processes involved in systemic conflict management (SKM) as well as their aims and individual measures. Making reference to the methods described in the previous chapter, it explains how to assess the severity of an individual case and find the intervention method that is appropriate. The chapter closes with a short set of directions to be consulted in an emergency. Chapter 5 depicts an actual case – treated anonymously, of course – that exemplifies the workings of systemic conflict management. The overall pedagogical framework is addressed in Chapter 6 because indeed, no amount of knowledge on (cyber)bullying can override the basic insight that an intervention will only have sustained effects if it rests on a solid pedagogical foundation. The building blocks include the courage to lead, aplomb and sensitivity to needs, a clear orientation in terms of values and norms, the promotion of personal skills and, in particular, the capacity for self-regulation, the integration of methods into a culture of motivation and personal relations, and the cultivation of emotional empathy and compassion. If this list may sound long and demanding, this handbook brings it to life. Moreover, practical units intend to encourage the development of various skills valuable in combatting bullying.

Audience interest
The new handbook on (cyber)bullying has proved to be of particular interest to its intended audience and is currently the most successful material in terms of orders and downloads. Since its launch on Safer Internet Day (SID) 2017, more than 1,400 print copies have been ordered, it has been downloaded more than 1,300 times and the Education Pack, a short preliminary version, was of interest to more than 1,000 people. At the same time, media coverage has been outstanding too. We therefore believe that with the new handbook on (cyber)bullying we have our finger on the pulse and have produced a material that is interesting to schools and media alike.

For further information on cyber-mobbing see the klicksafe website, and download the new resource here (in German).

Find out more about the work of the German Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services.

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