For most kids across the country, remote learning means school looks very different this year. Nearly three-fourths of the nation’s largest school districts have chosen virtual learning as their only instructional model for the beginning of the academic year, according to a Sept. 2 update from Education Week magazine.
There’s certainly less opportunities for bullies to do their biddings, but parents shouldn’t let their guard down entirely: Experts say that with the increase in screen time, cyberbullies may find new, covert ways to pick on their targets.
“Now we are in a situation where children’s entire, or the majority, of school experience is online ― that’s where all forms of human interaction will take place: flirting, passing notes and bullying,” said Michael Rich, the founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, cyberbullying was usually an outgrowth of traditional bullying that took place at school: A student rejected by the most popular boy in seventh grade at the school dance endured ridicule in real time at the dance or in the school hallway the next day and mocked for it later on another student’s Finsta account.
With online learning, bullies are not only deprived of those in-person opportunities to pick on other students, they’re being supervised most of the time, said Torrey Trust, an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Unless the teacher allows students to engage in small group breakout rooms without supervision, students are rarely alone with their peers,” she told HuffPost. “And many students are at home with parents or guardians who can keep a closer watch on their kids.”
Generally, students communicate through chatboxes which teachers supervise, Trust said. Some teachers are recording their live online classes, which adds to fears of being caught bullying.
The ever-watchful eye of Zoom exposes aggressors whose behavior all too often goes unnoticed in a traditional school setting.
“The research shows that the majority of bullying takes place in-person, in unsupervised places, such as recess, the cafeteria, or locker room,” Trust said.
Another perk to remote learning, according to Trust? There’s a flattening of the social hierarchy that persists on school campuses.
“Online settings are new for all students, and while some of the power differential among students in school settings may carry over online, this also means that in general students are starting from scratch in a new environment and the hierarchy of who bullies and who gets bullied might shift,” she said.
“If you hear or see behavior that you would consider to be bullying, make a point of reaching out to your child’s teacher after class to share and discuss your concerns and ask for an action plan moving forward.”
Students may still jockey for positions at the top of the popular-kid pecking order, but the new online setting gives other kids new opportunities to shine.
For example, a tech-savvy student who was previously bullied at recess can show off their expertise (and maybe even put their former bullies to shame in comparison).
That flattening of the school campus social order has been a welcome relief for Jeremy Broihier, a dad in Pinellas County, Florida. All of last year, his now-fourth grade daughter had been on the receiving end of “mean girl” antics from a certain clique of other students.
“The main girl would periodically seek to make amends, then after a few weeks, do it again, and this cycle would continue,” he told HuffPost.
“I think the see-saw of trying to figure out if this girl was or was not a friend started to mess with my daughter’s little third-grade head ― and that’s where the trouble came in, because it started distracting her from focusing on her school work as much,” Broihier said.
His daughter’s math grades suffered and the family hired a tutor to get her up to speed in class. It didn’t help that the particular mean girl in class was great at math.
Since the district shifted to remote learning, Broihier said his daughter has gotten her grades up and felt a great sense of relief.
“We have seen a huge difference in her anxiety regarding her studies,” he said. “She isn’t preoccupied with what this aggressive clique is doing to her or those around her, she isn’t being whiplashed back and forth from the ‘are we cool today or are we not’ with these ‘friends.’”
Tutoring no doubt helped but Broihier believes the elimination of the social factors that were distracting and causing anxiety for his daughter also contributed to the turnaround.
The cons of virtual learning include inequities in living situations being shown on Zoom.
The benefits of remote learning in diminishing bullying are a breath of fresh air for many families, but that doesn’t mean that the behavior isn’t happening on the sly.
Older students, for instance, are more likely to figure out tech workarounds that permit conversation among themselves during online classes without teachers’ knowledge (Google Classroom messaging), or to text or DM during the day, said Nina Kaiser, a psychologist and owner of a family wellness center in San Francisco.
“For older kids and teens, greater access to social media does offer ongoing opportunities to interact with peers in a way that can be problematic, particularly if parents working from home are overloaded and less likely to monitor what kids are doing online,” she said.
Kaiser said some students are using Google Docs’ collaborative features to communicate with classmates in a way that bypasses school social media bans. Those conversations can easily steer into bullying territory.
And when students are forced to be on camera and share their private living spaces with peers, new opportunities for embarrassment and bullying crop up. In a viral Facebook post, Melanie Lewis, a high school science teacher in Oregon, urged teachers to stop requiring students to turn their cameras on for that very reason.
Highly sensitive children might feel anxious over being on camera for hours on end, Lewis said.
What’s more, not all students have access to a learning location they are comfortable with their class seeing, including those who live in cramped apartments with multiple family members and homeless children streaming from a car or shelter.
Kaiser also cautions that Zooming into classes could exacerbate existing issues of inequity and perpetuate in-group vs. out-group social dynamics. Virtual learning isn’t entirely the great equalizer; in fact, sometimes it highlights disparities, as the coronavirus pandemic in general has done.
“When other kids’ home lives are on screen, it makes differences in family resources more apparent and salient to kids,” she said.
For instance, parents of wealthier students may band together to hire private instructors for their kids ― forming “pandemic pods,” as they’ve been called in the press. Meanwhile, a homeless student may struggle to even sign on to class, given that many shelters don’t have reliable Wi-Fi or cell service.
Parents and schools will need to navigate this altered social landscape carefully and intentionally, with proactive plans to address different learning circumstances, Kaiser said.
That could mean simply allowing students to have the option to turn on or off their camera (while still using their microphone, chat, or “thumbs up/thumbs down” reaction buttons ― or a Bitmoji avatar, as Lewis suggested in her Facebook post). Teachers could also encourage students to use a fun virtual or blurred background, Rich said.
“I think it’s a good idea for children to have a standard, relatively neutral background that will equalize them,” he said. “Like the way school uniforms equalize children in-person, this trick can avoid attention being placed on the key difference that children may pick on.”
What parents can do if their kids do get picked on during virtual classes.
To nip any form of bullying in the bud, parents should keep the lines of communication especially open with their children, said Lori Orlinsky, a bullying prevention expert and author of “Being Small (Isn’t So Bad After All).”
“Check in with them,” she said. “Ask how remote learning is going, and let your child know you are there to support them. Explain to them what a healthy remote school environment looks like, and what kind of behavior to watch out for.”
If bullying is occurring on school platforms (Google Classroom or Class Dojo, for instance), talk to a teacher or administration. School handbooks usually have a section on bullying policy. In years past, a school district may have taken a relatively hands-off approach to cyberbullying, given that it occurred off-campus, but this year is new terrain. Orlinsky said rules have likely been updated with additional cyberbullying policies and protocols.
If your child is being bullied on an ongoing basis, print or screenshot the behavior for documentation, she added.
All of the experts interviewed by HuffPost cautioned that it’s probably not a good idea to make your Zoom debut by saying something if you overhear bullying while in the room.
“Sometimes as parents, we can make things worse by jumping in right in the moment,” Kaiser said. “If you hear or see behavior that you would consider to be bullying, make a point of reaching out to your child’s teacher after class to share and discuss your concerns and ask for an action plan moving forward.”
If it’s your kid who’s demonstrating some bully-like behavior ― making snide comments or using snarky emojis toward other students in the chatbox, for example ― use this extra time at home to talk to them about what it means to be a good digital citizen and a kind, inclusive person.
“Have a conversation with your kid about the serious harm of bullying and restrict their technology use to schoolwork-only until they can earn back their use of technology for entertainment and socializing by demonstrating high-quality digital citizenship skills,” Trust said.
It’s important to discuss problematic dynamics directly with your child ― whether they’re a target, a perpetrator or a bystander, Kaiser added.
“You have the opportunity to talk to your kids about this tough situation while remote learning,“ Orlinsky said. “I think this situation could really positively impact the parent-child relationship.”