Preventing bullying has found renewed focus in the Obama administration

Preventing bullying has found renewed focus in the Obama administration (Getty Images)

Bullying prevention summit shines light on bystanders, role of technology

The U.S. Department of Education put together a two-day Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington D.C. to make sure anti-bullying efforts are based on the best available research and catapult bullying firmly into the national conversation.

“It’s not acceptable and it’s not a rite of passage,” said Valerie Jarett, White House senior advisor, who was one of the panelists on Tuesday.

Cynthia Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga’s mom, was also on the panel, talking about her daughter’s experiences with bullying.

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“She was put in a trash can which was particularly difficult,” Germanotta said. “She would ask, ‘Why didn’t somebody stop it?”

Two of the keys consistently mentioned to stopping bullying and cyber bullying were the idea of empowering bystanders and using technological approaches to snuff it out.

“Empirical evidence shows bystanders can stop and prevent bullying,” Germanotta said. “You have to be kind and brave.”

Dr. Reynol Junco, a professor at Loch Haven University, who studies the cross-section between education and technology, thinks this is a great approach to ending bullying.

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“Identifying the bystanders and targeting educational initiatives towards all students who can do something is absolutely the way to go,” Dr. Junco says.

Besides empowering witnesses of bullying, a new initiative by University of Wisconsin researchers is aiming to tackle the technology part of the equation.

It does not come easily for kids to speak to parents or teachers about the bullying that is going on at school but the computer science researchers found that all changes on Twitter.

“They don’t want to look like a tattletale, or they think an adult might not do anything about it,” says Amy Bellmore, a University of Wisconsin-Madison educational psychology professor.

So researchers developed a program that scours Twitter for evidence of bullying, which may sound like a daunting task given that 250 million public tweets are sent every day, but the program was able to identify more than 15,000 specific bullying-related tweets.

Researchers were able to tell who the bully was, the victim, and which tweeters are just reporting what’s going on or serving as passive bystanders.

“What we found, very importantly, was that quite often the victim and the bully and even bystanders talk about a real-world bullying incident on social media,” says computer sciences professor Jerry Zhu, one of the main researchers. “The computers are seeing the aftermath, the discussion of a real-world bullying episode.”

Dr. Junco, who is also a psychologist, says addressing bullying should be a national concern, but particularly in minority communities.

“Nobody knows how to oppress, like the oppressed,” he says. “As minorities all of us are really good at messing with each other in ways we are messed with in society. It normalizes it when you live with this factor — going to school and being Latino or driving while black.

“If you live under that stress, it’s going to come out,” Dr. Junco adds.

Administration officials and educators are hoping that a renewed focus on preventing bullying, may make it happen far less often.

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