No such thing as a silver bullet when it comes to cyberbullying

This week, public discussion has once again turned to the idea of banning phones in schools as a means of improving social and educational outcomes for students. While this is a decision that should ultimately be made by education authorities, it is really part of a broader debate about how to deal with the ever-growing presence of tech in our children’s lives and the risks that come with it, like cyberbullying.

Removing phones from the classroom may help children focus on learning, and potentially improve social interactions on the playground, but it is not a silver bullet for addressing the root causes of cyberbullying and other issues associated with technology, such as unwanted contact online or ‘sexting’ and sending nudes.

These issues are complex, nuanced and ever changing, and our kids are faced with them on a daily basis, whether at school or home or anywhere in between. To think that there is a quick fix for this is to abrogate our collective responsibility to be a positive and empowering influence in the lives of our children.

During our recent national campaign, Start the Chat, we focused on encouraging parents, carers, teachers, coaches—anyone with children in their lives—to see there is a deceptively low-tech solution to these seemingly high-tech problems: talk to your kids.

The best way we can help our young people is by being interested and engaged in their online lives, as much as we are in their offline lives.

We can go a step further by being informed and knowing the signs to look out for if kids experience online safety issues. The Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner offers support for young people, teachers and parents to demystify online safety issues and provide tools, tips and advice, including conversation starters.

Our research shows that 1 in 5 young people aged 8 to 17 have experienced cyberbullying and that teens spend an average 33 hours a week online outside of school. You don’t need a maths lesson to work out that if your teen is cyberbullied, there’s a high probability it won’t be happening exclusively during school hours. However, in our experience helping hundreds of young people with cyberbullying cases, there is always a nexus with conflict occurring within the school gates.

Fortunately, there are practical steps parents and teachers can take if they think a child is being cyberbullied. This goes beyond the initial urge to remove the phone or device in question, which can actually have negative effects, such as further alienating our children from their peers and not allowing them to build resilience.

Learning soft skills such as resilience, critical reasoning and respectful communication is crucial to our children’s success beyond school. Rather than shifting the responsibility for this learning, let’s all embrace the role we can play in ‘starting the chat’—an online safety conversation that can start at home, and continue at school.

While it is tempting to wish for a magic button to make the technology (and therefore the problems) disappear, the reality is that we need to get better at dealing with the behaviours that manifest in online abuse, over banning the technology itself. We need to connect with our kids, rather than disconnect their devices. 

A version of this op-ed was originally syndicated in a number of Nine newspapers nationally.