3 WAYS TO ADDRESS CYBERBULLYING

10/21/2016
SECURITY
Dirk Morris

Cyberbullying — the use of technology to threaten, harass, humiliate or target another person — is a serious problem at schools nationwide. In several high-profile cases, cyberbullying was cited as a key factor in teen suicides, prompting parents, educators and peers to consider new ways to address the issue and reach out to targeted students. But preventing cyberbullying remains a challenge because of the pervasive use of technology and children’s reluctance to report online harassment.

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So how big a problem is cyberbullying? Due to shifting device and platform usage, it’s difficult to accurately quantify just how many children are affected. But the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey says that 15% of high school students reported being cyberbullied in the past year. And kids who are cyberbullied are at risk for long-term damage, including increased use of alcohol and drugs, truancy, in-person bullying, lower self-esteem and a myriad of health problems.

For schools, the prevention of cyberbullying is a complex issue. Students legitimately need access to online resources for educational purposes, particularly older students who are conducting research or taking online classes. Typically, access is granted via school-owned devices, but many students have their own smartphones with online access, which is out of the school’s direct control. And in some cases, students take school-owned devices home and access the internet that way.

To complicate matters further, schools are required to comply with regulations like the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a federal law enacted by Congress to address concerns about access to offensive content on school and library computers. But there’s only so much school IT administrators can do, and there’s no panacea that can stop cyberbullying completely. That said, there are proactive steps schools can take to prevent cyberbullying. Here are three methods:

1. Use technology to control access to social media platforms

Cyberbullying often takes place on social media platforms and applications like Snapchat, Facebook or Twitter, so it makes sense for schools to use a web filter to control access to social media sites and apps. This not only can prevent cyberbullying from taking place during classroom hours via use of the school’s internet gateway, it can help school IT administrators manage bandwidth to ensure that resources are available for educational purposes. The best strategy is to use a modern web filter that enables filtering by categories of websites as well as by apps. This allows administrators to consistently deliver access to educational apps while restricting social media and filter-avoidance apps.

Since web filters have evolved significantly over the past few years, it’s a good idea from a productivity standpoint to choose a filtering solution that automates control. This is more efficient than requiring manual intervention to okay legitimate use of websites while restricting sites that are off limits. It’s also crucial to select a web filtering solution that can handle Secure HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTPS) sites. Without this ability, students can visit HTTPS versions of restricted sites, so it’s necessary to use a web filter that can decrypt, analyze and re-encrypt HTTPS sessions.

Technology can be helpful in enforcing policies by providing reporting tools that allow administrators to monitor online activities at a granular level from anywhere. A next-generation filtering solution will enable alerts and allow control at the user level, as well as block or grant internet access according to class schedules. All of these abilities can help school administrators curtail cyberbullying by restricting access to sites and apps students use to communicate with peers.

2. Educate students about cyberbullying and monitor activities

Technology tools can enable administrators to exercise some control over the sites students access using school hardware and internet gateways. But these days, most high school students have smartphones — in fact, a Harris Poll conducted last year found that 8 in 10 high schoolers own a smartphone. And when students use their personal data plans to access the internet via devices they carry or when they take school hardware home and access the internet from a gateway the school doesn’t control, restricting activities via technology becomes impossible.

That’s why a strong internet safety policy backed by student education is critical. Schools should be able to demonstrate that they are teaching students about appropriate behavior online, including cyberbullying prevention. Not only can this be an effective strategy for combatting cyberbullying, it’s a necessary component of CIPA compliance, which mandates policies that protect minors from inappropriate content, promote safety and security while using electronic platforms (email, chat rooms, etc.), curtail unauthorized access through hacking and prevent disclosure of personal information.

To address cyberbullying and reduce school liability, schools should educate students on appropriate use of school assets (hardware, software and internet access) and then ask students and parents to sign an acknowledgement form stating that they understand and will abide by the policies. This sets expectations about online behavior and signals that the institution takes cyberbullying seriously.

3. Partner with parents

The final piece of the puzzle for schools looking to protect students from cyberbullying is to partner with students’ parents. Cyberbullying of school peers often takes place away from school and on devices that school IT administrators cannot control or monitor. That’s why parental involvement is so important.

While schools can and should educate students about staying safe online, parents must take the lead in protecting kids online and offline. Important lessons parents should deliver include never sharing passwords with anyone but a parent and never giving out personal information or images to strangers online. Parents should also take steps to monitor their children’s online activities, and they should let kids know that if they are cyberbullied or see someone else being harassed online, they should report it right away.

Cyberbullying is a serious and growing problem. It’s also a multifaceted issue that defies a simple, one-size-fits all solution. School administrators can use technology to address many of the issues raised by cyberbullying, but the fact is that most student internet and social media activity takes place beyond the control of the school. That’s why it’s so important to adopt a multipronged strategy. By using next-generation web filtering and reporting tools, educating students on appropriate online behavior and partnering with parents, schools can keep kids safer online.

When he’s not summiting El Capitan or off-roading in Baja, Dirk Morris spends his time as the founder and engineering visionary behind the Untangle NG Firewall platform.
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