Cyberbullying by parents and pupils takes toll on teachers

One pupil posted online that a teacher’s skin was ‘covered in potholes’. Dave Thompson/PA

A new survey by the teachers union NASUWT has provided further evidence to confirm that teachers too, as well as pupils, can be targets of online bullying.

In the research, just more than a fifth of the 7,500 teachers surveyed had comments or information posted on social networking sites relating to their role as teachers. Almost two-thirds of those comments were written by pupils, and more than a quarter by parents.

The research reveals that almost half of the insulting comments from pupils related to their performance as a teacher. And the figure was higher still for comments from parents.

The vast majority of parents made their comments on Facebook, while pupils used a wider range of sites including Facebook, Ratemyteacher, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. The survey also found that the majority of teachers did not report the incidents – in most cases because they didn’t think anything could be done or that they would not be taken seriously.

When the teachers did report bullying to their headteacher, 40% said no action was taken against the pupil responsible, while 55% said that no action was taken against the parent responsible.

Lack of protection

Despite the majority of schools having internet or social media policies, less than a third of these policies refer to the protection of staff from cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is a relatively new manifestation of the age-old scourge of bullying. It has been defined by Robert Tokunaga as: “Any behavior performed through electronic or digital media by individuals or groups that repeatedly communicates hostile or aggressive messages intended to inflict harm or discomfort on others.”

Its recent rise in schools is undoubtedly linked to the proliferation of internet-enabled devices which children and young people can now access 24/7. In 2013, Ofcom reported that 62% of 12-15-year-olds and 18% of 8-11-year-olds now owned a smartphone.

Over two-thirds of 12-15-year-olds had a social networking site profile, and the vast majority of them accessed their social networking sites every day, while one in five did so more than ten times per day. On average they spent spent 17 hours online each week.

The NASUWT research follows Andy Phippen’s 2011 survey of 377 education professionals in which 35% of respondents claimed that either they, or a colleague, had been subject to some form of online abuse. Such abuse was most likely to be from pupils (72%) or parents (26%) or other staff (12%).

It is also confirmed in a recent cross-border study I co-authored involving 143 schools in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where one in six headteachers claimed that teachers had been victims of cyberbullying from pupils. Another 7% of headteachers claimed that teachers had been cyberbullied by parents in the past two months.

Several studies expose the threat of online bullying, the impact of which can be serious and long-lasting on children and young people. There has been much less research carried out to date on the impact of such online bullying on teachers, but Andy Phippen’s 2011 report does highlight feelings of intense frustration and isolation by teachers whose concerns have not been adequately addressed by school management.

Recent research studies have shown a rise in the incidence of cyberbullying among pupils. But one leading researcher has urged caution, describing cyberbullying as an “overrated phenomenon” compared to more traditional forms of bullying.

While acknowledging that other forms of bullying remain more common, our research found that 74% of post-primary headteachers and 33% of primary headteachers agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying was a growing problem in their school. An overwhelming 92% of headteachers also wanted more guidance on tackling cyberbullying, with considerable confusion emerging around their legal responsibilities.

The rise of online social networking has revolutionised how we communicate in society as a whole. Therefore it is not surprising that recent research such as the NASUWT survey shows there has been a parallel shift in communication between the home and the school.

This development is generally incredibly positive and fruitful, with many schools increasingly using their websites, social networking sites, emails and texts to communicate more effectively than ever with parents. Unfortunately, the disinhibition associated with online communication has also led to abuses.

No incident of cyberbullying is defensible. Pupils, teachers and parents alike need more education, guidance and support as we all seek to embrace the vast potential of online communication in safety.

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