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By Anne Collier

We need to prevent and solve bullying. No question. But we also need to encourage and empower our children with the knowledge that most kids don’t bully, that bullying is not normative – that, in fact, kindness is. As Dr. Marc Brackett at Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence said Friday at the federal government’s Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, “Children are wired for good,” and I’ll add that they deserve to know that. Out of basic respect, they deserve to hear that truth. And there are other reasons why they do….

Scaring kids with the misinformation that most kids are socially cruel in social media does not change behavior for the better; it perpetuates the problem, social norms research shows. Because perception greatly affects behavior (see this), and we want to model media and social literacy for our children by telling them the truth – the facts as stated in study after study – that goodness is normative. If we want to change behavior, change perception away from destructive headlines and political messaging that bullying and cyberbullying are an epidemic. They are not. Besides, fear-based messaging, University of Toronto researchers found, changes behavior only if the scary messaging is relevant and actionable (don’t most people say to themselves, “I’m no bully!,” making messages that say bullying is out of control irrelevant to them; and doesn’t sending the message that bullying is normative discourage rather than empower a person to do something about it by making a kind person feel abnormal and disinclined to take action?).

Leadership Day resonates

How fitting that educator Scott McLeod’s tech education Leadership Day should be the same day as that of the Bullying Prevention Summit. Because, with regard to bullying, educators and school administrators need to exercise leadership in two ways: by making sure students get the facts – what the research shows – about bullying and by making sure they are safe and empowered as users of digital media by arming them with the three literacies of their (and our) very social, mostly digital media environment: digital literacy (providing for effective use of digital tech and media), media literacy (providing critical thinking and thus protection in the face of misinformation, hyperbole and politicized messaging, among other things) and social literacy (providing them with the social-emotional skills that protect them and help them protect peers in social media and all other social spaces). These are the literacies that enable citizenship and success in our networked world.

Think about it: Did we ever help our children develop social competency and safety by keeping them away from social experiences (many of which happen in social media now), or not giving them opportunities to practice their social skills, grow their resilience, observe other socializers set good and bad examples, learn from their observations, develop social strategies, etc.? The goal is effective use – social, academic and professional success – not just avoidance of harm, right? Efficacy takes practice. Risk gets lower and lower as resilience and competency grow – competency in the social skills described by the Center for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning here.

Empower with literacy

In a TEDx Talk Dr. McLeod gave about “Extracurricular Empowerment,” he gives numerous examples of the success and citizenship demonstrated by younger and younger people in and with digital media: better, more nutritious lunches for a 9-year-old student’s entire district and $200,000 in funds she raised for feeding children in Malawi; a 13-year-old making a documentary that encourages peers to think about how teens express identity formation; a student making more than enough with his following on YouTube to pay for college; 16-year-olds starting “what is now a highly acclaimed magazine called Rookie”; a 13-year-old who has written 27 stories in that have received 4,800+ reviews; the teens on the Rosebud Sioux reservation who were “so incensed by how the ABC News Special portrayed their lives that they decided to make a response video to show that they were more than that, they were more than drugs and crime, that they were about passion and humility, about creativity and self-respect … and by exercising their voice, they reclaimed the power that the adults around them tried to take from them.”

Concrete steps

So in his blog post about Leadership Day, one of the questions McLeod asks fellow bloggers to answer is: “What are some tangible, concrete, realistic steps that administrators can take to move their school organizations forward” and, I would add, foster that level of citizenship and initiative on the part of students? Here are some:

  1. Read the report of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet, “Learner at the Center of a Networked World,” and check out its 6 recommendations and 26 action steps (disclosure: I had the honor of serving on the task force).
  2. Ensure that all school personnel receive training in social-emotional learning so they can lead by example and model social literacy while teaching it.
  3. Ensure that all students, pre-K-12, receive instruction in the three literacies of the digital age: digital literacy, media literacy and social literacy (or social-emotional learning).

Research shows (and so many young people illustrate) that taking these steps will go far in preventing bullying online and offline, improving school climate and students’ academic performance, and empowering students to use social media for the social good.

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Data & other takeaways from the summit
I was very encouraged to hear 3 needs acknowledged a number of times at the Federal Partners for Bullying Prevention Summit this month, showing that consensus around these is growing:

  • School climate & beyond. I heard several speakers saying it takes a whole school community to overcome bullying by co-creating positive, respectful school climates.
  • SEL is foundational. I heard several speakers acknowledging social-emotional learning for all school community members, not just students, as key to bullying prevention as well as social well-being and academic success.
  • Screen for trauma. The US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention called for trauma screening for all students, especially those exhibiting bullying behaviors. So the OJJDP is saying what we haven’t acknowledged enough: that kids engaging in bullying are hurting too. The bullying stops with the right kind of help, not with punishment, which reinforces the misconception that hurting somehow fixes hurt.

What I didn’t hear was the fact that bullying is not just “a kid thing.” Adults bully too (the National Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 survey found that 27% of Americans had experienced abuse in the workplace, while the Centers for Disease Control’s latest data shows that 14.8% of students had been cyberbullied during the year prior to taking the survey. [Workplace bullying or abuse is more likely to be compared to what the CDC refers to as “electronic bullying.” The CDC’s figure for physical bullying is 19.6% [for youth survey respondents who said they’d experienced bullying on school property, which apparently means physical bullying).]

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