Throwing Students to the Wolves of Online Harassment

“Fed by our own uncertainties, occasional anecdotes, and sensational stories from the media, we ignore the data that overwhelmingly show that digital environments are no worse – and often better – than in-person environments. That is to say, the data show that in-person environments nearly always have higher rates of bullying, harassment, and abuse/predation than digital environments. The fear drives some schools to ban cellphones, disallow students and faculty from using Facebook, and lock down Internet filters so tightly that useful websites are inaccessible.”  Scott McLeod

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I’d like to know what data Mr. McLeod is using to assert that online harassment is such a minor issue as to be of little consequence when considering school policies and practices. It’s quite a claim to leave unsupported.

He and I certainly disagree on the use of social media in the classroom, but I share his belief that school web filters are a pointless nuisance. They mostly serve to block useful sites, and I’m no fan of trying to bowdlerize or limit access to the internet at school, so we have common ground on this issue.

But I can’t quite wrap my head around the way he’s made his argument: favoring open internet access in schools by diminishing the significance if online harassment in the lives of students, and suggesting that it merits no more attention that in-person bullying.

There is abundant research showing that harassment online can indeed be a very serious problem for young people, and that abusive behavior online is often more frequent and more damaging than in-person harassment. Why would anyone write an essay implicitly encouraging schools to be less vigilant about the safety and wellbeing of their students? It’s an irresponsible and unnecessary way to make the point about web filtering, and encourages administrators to be inattentive to what happens to their students online and how that affects their general wellbeing and their performance and safety in school.

Mr. McLeod may want to read Amanda Hess’ 2014 essay “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” for a primer on how the experience of females online is qualitatively different, and scarier, than that of males. Rape threats, death threats, and real-life stalking are much more common for women than men. Your female students might beg to differ with your confidence in the relatively benign nature of online harassment. Or maybe he could read this article about how LGBT youth experience harassment online, and he may think twice about the internet being a reasonably safe space for all students. Remember also that in-person bullying ends with the school day; online abuse does not.

I also recommend reading Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which may illuminate the way that the sheer volume of harassment that sometimes occurs online can lead to very real consequences, and how the anonymity of the internet excuses us from experiencing the empathy we would in person.

“Online” can sometimes be a dangerous and uncomfortable place for young people, and it cannot be sincerely argued that concerns about that danger are trivial. To do so is outrageously irresponsible. I completely agree that web filters are not a solution, but that argument should be made on its own merits. (For example, filtering does little to mitigate online harassment, which happens after school and via text and in other areas not blocked by filters.  And simply blocking some sites does nothing to help students understand and cope with online abuse when and if they experience it).  But don’t encourage schools to be less cautious and attentive to whether and how students are experiencing harassment online.  To be concerned about student safety online is not “clinging to the past,” it is our basic responsibility to the children in our care.

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