Yes. Well – somewhat. Let’s begin at the beginning. Apps and programs designed to help kids report and cope with bullying and cyberbullying are beginning to litter the landscape. Some of these technological solutions alert adults to language that might be bullying or cyberbullying, while other apps make reporting much easier for their child or teen users. There are programs that control use of social networking, and apps that help children find a trusted adult. The approaches may vary, but all these programs and apps have a few things in common.
First, they all take advantage of the fact that kids today are extremely comfortable using digital communications – in some instances, they are more comfortable with digital than they are with in-person communications. So developing digital methods for reporting bullying and cyberbullying makes sense, and offering digital solutions for a generation that pays a lot of attention to screens is logical. But comfort isn’t the only advantage. Digital methods of reporting may also appeal to students who want to report something, but who lack the nerve to do so face-to-face. If a student wants to report but also wants to remain anonymous, they can report using an app that allows them to keep their identity a secret. Of course, many schools have long offered anonymous reporting on paper (e.g., by installing boxes in a school hallway, where students can leave anonymous notes), but using a physical box means risking witnesses. Digital reporting methods aren’t only comfortable and possibly anonymous; they are also easy, quick, and thorough. A digital app may make it easy to send messages or even screenshots; and when it comes to harassment, a picture can be worth a thousand words.
But what if we come to rely on digital methods for reporting and detecting cyberbullying – so much so that, as adults, we’ll forget the critical importance of connecting with the children in our communities? In Massachusetts, I conducted a study of 453 teenagers, and asked those kids both about cyberbullying, how they felt about it, and how they felt about the adults in their lives. Some students were “resilient” – that is, they didn’t like meanness but felt able to cope with it, and it didn’t devastate them emotionally. Other targets were much more vulnerable. There were a number of factors that differed between the resilient and the vulnerable targets of bullying, but one of them was how connected the kids felt to their teachers. Students who regularly had teachers with whom they felt an emotional connection were far more likely to be resilient. None of the students who reported that they rarely, if ever, felt connected to their teachers were resilient.
This doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t have a role to play in helping us cope with, and possibly ultimately prevent, bullying and cyberbullying. But even if we usually type or swipe, we must be careful to always remember how to write with a pencil. Technology is a boon, no doubt about it. But it can’t replace the healing power of our old-fashioned human relationships.