CYBERBULLYING: What is it? What can we do about it?

In the wake of the suicides of six gay teens who had been bullied or cyberbullied, this lesson helps high school students consider the issue of cyberbullying and how we can make cyberspace -- and all space -- safe for everyone, including LGBTQ students.

To the teacher:

In the past month, six gay teenagers have committed suicide after being tormented by bullying or cyberbullying. To help teachers address this issue, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has posted several new classroom lesson plans on TeachableMoment. The lesson below aims to raise students' awareness about how to make their school and community a safe and welcoming place for everyone. October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month and National Bullying Prevention Month. 
Students will:
  • discuss the rules, regulations and guidelines that exist in the communities they are a part of
  • discuss why these rules, regulations and guidelines exist
  • explore what bullying is, what things people are bullied for and what environments are conducive to bullying behavior
  • discuss bullying situations they have been a part of and how it felt
  • read an article about cyberbullying and some things people are doing to address it
  • brainstorm ways in which students themselves can address bullying and cyberbullying in their communities
Social and Emotional Skills
  • recognition of why it's important to build a safe and welcoming community for all
  • awareness of our choices when we witness bullying
  • consideration for others 
  • standing up for others, becoming allies
  • reaching out to others for support


(13 minutes)

Ask students to think about the kinds of communities they are a part of. These might include their (extended) family, the people in their building or neighborhood, their classroom or school community, perhaps a cultural, national, linguistic or religious community, or their after-school program, club, or team. Also ask your students to consider the virtual communities they may be a part of such as MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and others.
Ask students to pick one of these communities and in pairs share why they are a part of this community. Also ask student to talk about the rules, guidelines or regulations people in the community follow. What are they?
Back in the large group ask students to share some of the rules, guidelines and regulations in their communities. You might then ask students some or all of the following questions:
  • Why do you think communities have such rules, guidelines and regulations? 
  • What are some of the rules and regulations in this classroom?
  • What are they meant to accomplish?

Check agenda

(2 minutes)

Explain that in today's lesson you'll be discussing bullying, in the wake of a series of teen suicides. The most recent took place on September 30, 2010, when an 18-year old Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, killed himself after a roommate secretly streamed onto the internet a webcam of Clementi kissing another man.

What is bullying?

(10 minutes)

a) Why do people get bullied?
Take about 5 minutes to brainstorm and chart students' responses to this question:
"What are some of the characteristics, backgrounds or identities that people get teased or bullied for?"
Elicit a list from your students, keeping in mind that pretty much anything can go on this list, including ethnic background, religious affiliation, skin color, size, disability, language, accent, social awkwardness or shyness, sexual orientation, club membership (or lack thereof), family makeup, being new to a community, hair color, clothing, etc. Suggest that to be bullied, all you really have to be is alive.
b) What does bullying behavior look like? 
Now that students have discussed the many things people get bullied for, turn to what bullying behavior looks like. Read to the class the following excerpt from an article about bullying by Donna Smith:
"What counts as bullying behavior? Name calling? Being pushed up against a locker? Being tripped in the lunchroom? Threatening bodily harm? Starting a rumor about a person? Simply put, bullying is when someone does something to have power over another individual. Kids will joke, call each other names and even "horse-play," but when one of the parties wants the interaction to stop and the other party won't, it's bullying. Normal teasing and horse-play are only fun if both children involved are enjoying it. Bullies want to make their victims suffer. They want power." 
—From "Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones—And Words Can Hurt, Too" by Donna Smith, Children Today 
You might add that bullying is a form of abuse and that at least 19 states have passed anti-bullying legislation. 
c) What sets bullying apart?
Three characteristics combined set bullying apart from other behaviors. (One of these actions in isolation doesn't necessarily constitute bullying.)
  • A power differential that is either real or perceived. (It may be perceived in that the target and allies have not yet understood their own power in the situation.)
  • A deliberate intent to harm or disturb. This means intentionally hurting someone either physically or psychologically despite the target's apparent distress. 
  • A pattern of repeated aggression. (Bullying is rarely a one time thing. It is usually repeated over and over again, either by the same person or group of people or by different people over time.)

Bullying Microlabs

(10 minutes) 

Now that students have a better understanding of what bullying is, ask them to break into groups of three to talk about times they've witnessed or heard about bullying in a community they are a part of. Ask students to describe these incidents and discuss these three questions:
  • What did it feel like to witness someone being bullied?
  • Do you think bullying takes place at this school? 
  • Does bullying happen in other communities you are a part of?
Back in the large group ask some volunteers to share what they talked about in their microlabs. Point out that witnesses are very much affected by bullying behavior. Also note that bullying often takes place in negative, unsafe and unsupervised environments, where people (adults and students alike) don't watch out for each other, let alone stand up for each other. Bullying behavior contributes hugely to creating that unsafe environment.
Of course, there are many gray areas—some environments are safe some of the time or in some ways, and unsafe in others. That's why it's important for each one of us to work toward creating a positive, safe and supervised environment—including our classroom and school—where everyone feels like they belong, where people can be themselves, feeling welcome and supported.
Explain that one of the most important ways we can build a safe environment is to stand up to bullying and create a school-wide culture that encourages standing up. When we witness bullying, we have a choice: We can either remain bystanders who do nothing to change the situation, or we can choose to become allies of the person being targeted, to stand up in solidarity with that person. The more people in a community become allies, the harder it will be for bullying behavior to continue because the power balance will shift.
Earlier in the class, we discussed some of the rules, guidelines or regulations we follow in our family, classroom, online community, sports team, or other community. Ask students: 
  • What do you think could be done to make our school community safer for everyone? How might we make cyberspace safer for everyone?
  • What can we do to stand by those who are the target of bullying behavior? How can we encourage others to be allies of those who are bullied?
  • What can we do to be allies for those who are cyber-bullied?
  • Do students have any other thoughts about ways of preventing bullying? Cyberbullying? 

One-third of US teens are victims of cyberbullying

(14 minutes)

Ask students to read Stacy Teicher Khadaroo's article "One-third of US teens are victims of cyberbullying," published in the Christian Science Monitor on October 8, 2010. (The article is posted below and can be found at
Based on the article ask students some or all of the following questions:
  • What do you think about the finding that half of all American teens worry about safety on the internet? How do you feel about this?
  • In the article Richard Harrison says that young people need to understand the importance of "setting ground rules of what's acceptable behavior" and better understand "how that technology may be used against them ... where they could be blackmailed or cyberbullied." What do you think about this? How does this relate to what students have talked about in class as far as rules, regulations and guidelines are concerned?
  • If you were asked to particpate in a workshop or hear a presentation on cyberbullying, what would you want it to address? What questions would you like to have answered?
For homework, ask students to consider the different ways in which the media and others are now responding to cyberbullying according to the article they just read. 
  • What are these responses are likely to achieve? 
  • What can students themselves do to make the communities they are a part of safer for everyone? 
  • Who else in their communities can they enlist to help out and in what ways?


(1 minute)

Ask students to observe a moment of silence as they consider the quote most often attributed to Irish political philosopher Edmond Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing."
How did this activity work in your class? Please share your stories and other feedback with us! Email:

Report: One-third of US teens are victims of cyberbullying

The suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi has brought more attention to cyberbullying. A new study examines the scale of cyberbullying among US teens.
By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo (staff writer, Christian Science Monitor)
October 8, 2010
More than half of American teens worry about safety on the Internet and know someone their age who has been targeted by hurtful electronic communications. Nearly a third have been targets themselves.
Those recent survey results, released by the Chicago youth-market research firm TRU, hint at the scale of the problems being addressed more vigorously in the wake of the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi and other cases of cyberbullying.
When it comes to safety online, young people's main "knowledge gap" relates to "setting ground rules of what's acceptable behavior ... and how that technology may be used against them ... where they could be blackmailed or cyberbullied," says Richard Harrison, lead mentor for the Safe and Secure Online program, which enlists online security experts to volunteer in schools.
The presentations, given by members of the professional information-security group (ISC)² are aimed primarily at grades 7 to 9. Students discuss scenarios and how to use good everyday judgment to prevent them from reaching the extreme cases they may have heard about in the news.
Parents tend to have these conversations reactively, and often don't realize a gaming device even has Internet capability, Mr. Harrison says.
October is designated as both National Cyber Security Awareness Month and National Bullying Prevention Month.
MTV is enlisting young people to set good standards for themselves with a new iPhone and iPad app called "Over the Line?" Users share and read personal stories about how cell phones and social networking have affected them, then rate whether they think the behavior crossed the line of what's appropriate. A similar Facebook application has had more than 120,000 users. Examples of teens' stories range from boyfriends making sex videos in secret and spreading them around school to people being taunted for being gay.
Both of those issues converged at Rutgers University in New Jersey last month, where two students were charged with secretly using a webcam to capture and transmit Mr. Clementi's sexual encounter in his dorm room.
Prosecutors recently subpoenaed the university for a complaint Clementi made to a resident assistant about his roommate, Dharun Ravi, spying with a webcam. President Richard McCormick wouldn't comment on the details because of privacy laws, but told reporters Thursday that he believes the school responded appropriately.
It appears that Clementi also reached out to discuss the situation on an online forum for gay men in the days leading up to his suicide.
Sixty-eight percent of college students say they have thought someone close to them was crying out for emotional help through a public online posting, according to an Associated Press-MTV U Poll released Thursday. Thirteen percent say a friend has made a suicide attempt in the past year.
Overall, social networking makes most college students feel more connected (85 percent) rather than more isolated (14 percent), according to the poll, completed by about 2,200 undergraduates at 40 randomly selected four-year colleges.
In another case that has sparked controversy, recent Duke graduate Karen Owen created a mock-thesis PowerPoint presentation analyzing in graphic detail 13 Duke athletes she had sex with. It has spread rapidly online this month, although Ms. Owen has reportedly said that was not her intent. Some observers have celebrated it for turning male objectification of women on its head, while others decry it as yet another form of cyberbullying.
As part of an ongoing campaign against digital abuse, MTV has teamed up with actress Brittany Snow, the Jed Foundation, and several other groups to promote "Love is Louder," a new initiative where people can post short videos on or send messages on Twitter and Facebook to show how love and support is more powerful than whatever would try to bring people down.
Earlier this week, TV host Dr. Phil focused his show on bullying. It included a panel discussion with victims of bullying led by actor Mark Indelicato, who played a gay teen on "Ugly Betty" and also posted a video last week on his blog about remembering what it was like to be bullied and to not fit in during grade school.
On Friday night, CNN personality Anderson Cooper will present a town-hall meeting on bullying. It will include guests ranging from "American Idol" finalist Crystal Bowersox to Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Kevin Jennings.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project is offering free to schools a teaching kit and a new documentary, "Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History." The film tells of a student who filed a federal lawsuit against his school district in the wake of anti-gay bullying.
"Students should never be afraid for their safety at school," says Jamie Nabozny, the subject of the documentary and now 34, in a press release. "This film offers hope to students who are being harassed and should inspire educators to live up to their responsibility to stop the bullying that is shattering lives."
Fifty-two percent of teens and 20-somethings say homophobia is a big issue in their communities, according to the TRU survey.

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