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Reindeer games: How educators can explain, reduce online bullying

Bullying by other students on social media can be especially difficult for students. Principal Michael Gaskell shares how educators can help.

6 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Book cover that reads "Stop Bullying"

Dee @Copper and Wild/Unsplash

While December brings happiness and joy to many, the holiday season may not seem as celebratory to students who face bullying in school and online. Even one of the holiday’s favorite TV classics, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” features a bullying storyline, because Rudolph stands out as different from his peers.

michael gaskell

Although Rudolph’s story has a happy ending, most bullying experiences aren’t solved in the one-hour span of a TV show. They persist as students struggle with the day-to-day challenges associated with growing up in their social hierarchy.

Bullying has existed as long as humans have had social hierarchies. All children should learn ways to address bullying, especially in its more antagonistic contexts such as social media’s  echo-chamber platforms. It’s also important given that educators are seeing an uptick in bullying as students return to school after pandemic lockdowns.

But there is good news.

Educators can help students make better choices

For all the problems that social media creates, there are solutions. By understanding and teaching helpful strategies to students and educators, we can confront traumatic experiences children face in refreshingly purposeful ways that help them be better grounded and successful.

Schools can take advantage of their role as the moderator of learning to help students learn to manage their online presence and cope with the inevitable challenges that social media problems bring into their school day.

Let’s look at the challenges and, more importantly, a few solutions you can teach children to apply and use right away if they are experiencing bullying online.

The online disinhibition effect

A phenomena scientists refer to as the disinhibition effect is the perception that one believes they are hidden in anonymity and can act freely. This causes the offender to act in ways that they would not in person because they believe there will be minimal cost to them. This perpetuates risky behaviors of online “flaming.” The results can be traumatic for targets, and the offender presumes they can turn this conduct on or off as quickly as a light switch.

They are wrong.

The online disinhibition effect causes many polarizing and harmful behaviors on social media. When individuals feel they can act uninhibited online, they jeopardize others and themselves by shifting their behavior for the worse as they enter a dangerous zone of misconduct online.

Teaching children awareness

Show students that they are not incognito and that misbehavior harms them. This helps to establish awareness and deter an excessively cavalier attitude that can result in punishment later, with more severe consequences. 

One of the most effective ways to do this is to share with secondary-school students that many colleges and employers check social media, even old or forgotten accounts. Nearly 70% of admissions officers say that viewing a prospective student’s social media helps differentiate between accepting or rejecting students. Ask how they’d feel if they worked hard and got good grades, only to be rejected because of some bad moments documented online? Instead, students can learn to use social media to help rather than harm. 

For younger students, take the time to show them the harmful effects bullying behavior can have, hopefully redirecting their impressionable minds. Explain how bullying can cause poor school performance and poor attendance. It also can get them suspended or prevent them from making friends. Sharing this with students may help prevent bullying or help students learn from their mistakes before it’s too late.

The benign disinhibition effect

The benign disinhibition effect is an intriguing way to use social media to initiate positive social media experiences. These involves positive, supportive and monitored groups who aid one another anonymously. They offer a safe and confidential harbor to seek support. Research has demonstrated that fostering networks like this induces self-disclosure and prosocial behaviors, because individuals respond positively to this zone of anonymity and support online.

These groups are searchable online. Having access to one offers a healthier way for vulnerable children to engage. The benefits mirror many of the positive results of anonymous, in-person support groups.

The benign disinhibition effect is a contrasting antidote to the disinhibition effect, one that works in a child’s favor. It produces a willingness by those in need to seek out help and open up to others. When pragmatic support is accessible online, students often are better able to express themselves, enabling them to feel heard and supported in a nonjudgmental way.

Comparison is the thief of joy

Many well-known figures, such as the singer Kesha, address comparison traps by exposing the real version of themselves online. They are closing the fantasy gap of a perfect persona that students feel they’ll never measure up to. Famous male role models can contribute, such as actor Ryan Reynolds, can offer support for young men and adolescents too. It is wonderful to see famous individuals share their vulnerabilities to empower others to feel okay about their own imperfections. 

Singers Lizzo and Beyonce each used unintentional ableist slurs in recent new songs, and many fans reached out to them on social media to protest. Lizzo — who spreads a message of inclusivity — apologized, talked about her feelings online and changed the lyrics. Beyonce also agreed to change her lyrics.

Sharing examples like these, as well as those of popular icons among your students’ age group, is a powerful tool for reinforcing a positive online experience, one in which they feel better about themselves.

Sharing these and other strategies with educators and students in your school enables vulnerable individuals to rise up and be the best version of themselves. It can help bad actors realize they need to refrain from offensive conduct. A pragmatic shift occurs in school communities with these tools, aiding all children. Everyone can learn lessons from the benefits of improving their online social media presence and eradicating online bullying. After all, reindeer games are a lot more fun when everyone is playing on equal footing, working together as a team.

Michael Gaskell, Ed.D., is the author of a new book, Radical Principals, and a veteran principal in New Jersey currently working at Hammarskjold Upper Elementary School in East Brunswick.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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