Can new technologies help stop bullying?

in News

Jessie Mitchell, Senior Advisor Bullying, Alannah & Madeline Foundation

More students are reporting bullying to their schools, thanks to anonymous apps and web-based tools. However, while reporting technologies can prove useful, they don’t remove the need for trust, knowledge and relationships between students and staff.

Many students don’t report bullying

Some students feel too embarrassed to tell school staff about bullying; others are afraid of retaliation or getting other people into trouble. Students may also believe that teachers cannot help them or will not believe them. For example, the Queensland Anti Cyberbullying Taskforce (2018) found that many bullied students didn’t tell anyone, and those who did were more likely to approach friends or parents than teachers.

Is there a tech solution?

Recently, there has been a proliferation of new technologies to help students report bullying and other problems. Perhaps the best-known model in Australia is Stymie, which worked with 121 school communities in 2018, but other international models include Anonymous Alerts, BRIM , CyberBully Hotline, Okay2Say, P3 Campus , No Bullying Schools , Safe2SpeakUP , Safe2Tell , Say Something , Speak UP! , STOPit , The BullyBøx , and Tootoot.

 These products enable students to report bullying, mental health problems, family violence, drug and alcohol use, suicidal ideation, and crime. American. models, especially, were developed in the context of gun violence and police on campuses – they urge students to report issues such as‘weapons possession’, ‘gang-related issues’, and ‘unusual student behavior’. Many U.S. states have laws requiring schools to have detailed systems for anonymous reporting and recording bullying. Consequently, reporting apps are big business.

Most reporting technologies invite students to describe what happened, as well as where, when, and who was involved. Depending on the model, other features may include:

  • Attachment of pictures or videos
  • Two-way messaging between students and staff
  • Detection of user location
  • Screening questions to discourage false reporting
  • Emergency alerts broadcast to all students
  • Forwarding student reports to other services – for example, police and/or child protection
  • Availability of the app to parents
  • Data storage and creation of statistics.

However, no matter how sophisticated the technology, ultimately staff must respond to students’ disclosures using their own (human) skills, processes and resources.

Do reporting technologies help?

At present, these products are so new that there are very few evaluations publicly available. Here are some insights so far:

Queensland’s cyber bullying taskforce (2018) heard from schools with a range of experiences in using reporting technologies. Some schools said these technologies worked well and empowered students to speak up. Other schools expressed concerns about cost, security of information, and risk of false accusations. Unfortunately, some students who reported bullying through anonymous technologies were bullied again, as their peers guessed who had made the complaint. True anonymity is hard to guarantee.

Meanwhile, the Cyberbullying Research Centre spoke in favour of reporting technologies, arguing that students feel more comfortable speaking out anonymously via their screens. However, the Centre does not promote any particular commercial app – in fact, they tell schools how to create their own reporting mechanisms for free.

Also interesting was a 2016 review of school safety technologies in the U.S. The researchers found that anonymous reporting mechanisms could be a key source of intelligence about violence in schools. However, there must be accountability; if student reports are not acted on promptly and appropriately, it can make things worse, causing mistrust and resentment. The researchers also stressed that new technologies cannot stop students from using violence in the first place; we still need human interventions to change behaviours and school cultures for the better.  

Relationships are key

 Reporting technologies don’t take away the need for strong human relationships. If a young person reports being victimised, only to receive no response, or a response which is ineffective or insensitive, this ‘secondary victimisation’ can leave them feeling more distressed than ever.

Recently, a focus group of Canadian school students were invited to review a popular app for reporting bullying. While the students had suggestions about how the technology itself could be improved – including simple layout and security measures to hide the app on your phone – their main messages concerned human connections. The students said they would like a two-way messaging function so they could get support from professionals if they felt distressed. (Given that some mental health services already provide web-based counselling, schools would need to consider how to align these options.)

The students also stated that they would be most likely to use a reporting app if it they knew their messages were read by a ‘real’ person who was experienced and competent, and had the right authority to take action. The students added that a reporting model should include an ‘about us’ section explaining who read the reports and perhaps enabling students to choose which staff member would receive their report.

 New technologies offer us the chance to do things better – but to end bullying in schools, we still need trusting relationships between students and staff, and the capacity of staff to build and nurture these positive connections.

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