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School Social Workers Aren't Equipped to Handle Cyberbullying

A study by Ohio University researchers shows that nearly half of school social workers are not prepared to handle incidents of cyberbullying among teens.

An Ohio University-led survey finds that a large number of school social workers don’t feel equipped to handle incidents of cyberbullying among teens. The study of 399 members of the 11-state Midwest School Social Work Council found that while nearly all agreed that cyberbullying can cause psychological harm— including suicide—and deserved more attention from schools, only slightly more than half felt empowered to deal with the issue. In contrast, other research on traditional bullying suggests that 86% of school staff members are confident in their ability to manage those problems.

“Social workers were definitely aware that cyberbullying happens, but reported that they may not be as prepared as they would like to deal with it. The legal issues trip them up, as much of this activity occurs outside of school,” said lead author Karen Slovak, an associate professor of social work at Ohio University’s Zanesville campus, in a press release.

Slovak and Jonathan Singer, PhD, of Temple University surveyed social workers in rural, urban and suburban elementary, middle and high schools for the study, which is published Children & Schools. They found that the greatest level of awareness and concern exists among middle-school officials. Cyberbullying often starts during middle school and can persist in high schools, while elementary school administrators reported less incidence of the problem, the authors reported.

Recent studies suggest that between 9% and 29% of youths have been the victims of online harassment. Though school social workers and other administrators often are well-trained to deal with traditional bullying, cyberbullying poses some unique challenges: It’s often anonymous, can occur at any time and without regard to geographical barriers, often happens outside of school, can have a large online audience—due to its viral nature—through social networking sites, and may have limited monitoring by adults, the researchers noted.

About half of the social workers in the study argued that students weren’t reporting incidents of cyberbullying to school officials, making it difficult for them to monitor and manage the problems, Slovak said. Teens may be reluctant to raise the issue, she noted, because they may think that social workers might not be able to help them resolve online harassment that often occurs off school property. They also may fear that parents might restrict computer time or confiscate personal cell phones to cut off access to virtual bullies, she added.

An absence of or lack of awareness about a specific school policy on cyberbullying also hampers management of the issue, the study found. Only one in five school social workers surveyed believed that their school had an effective policy on cyberbullying, and some respondents were unsure if their schools even had a policy on the books.

“I think the school social workers do a good job of dealing with these problems, but they’re often flying solo,” Slovak said. “If they’re looking for evidenced-based training and policies, there hasn’t been much for them to latch onto.”

Slovak noted that some state legislatures, including Ohio, have mandated school bullying policies to include cyberbullying, which may improve the situation. She hopes to conduct a follow-up study in the near future to track progress on this issue, given the fast-changing nature of technology trends.

For more:

  • How to Address Cyberbullying with Children and Parents
  • The Cold, Hard Facts of Cyber Cruelty
  • Kids and Cyber Safety: Q&A with Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe