Cyberbullying became a problem for tech-savvy students well before adults — particularly parents and teachers — knew much about it. For the past decade, that's where Sameer Hinduja has come in.
Hinduja is the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. On Thursday, he visited Howard County for two anti-bullying seminars hosted by the school district and its council of PTAs.
As part of the county schools' professional development day, Hinduja conducted a presentation for student service personnel, including counselors and psychologists, Howard school officials said. And in the evening he conducted an anti-bullying presentation for parents at Wilde Lake High School.
"Adolescents have been bullying each other for generations. The latest generation, however, has been able to utilize technology to expand their reach and the extent of their harm," said Hinduja. He defines cyberbullying as "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices."
Howard County schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the school district sought to work with the PTA after parents and teachers expressed concern about how to deal with cyberbullying. The presentation was planned around the beginning of the school year — before the death of Grace McComas, the Glenelg High School sophomore who recently took her life, her family said, because of cyberbullying she was forced to endure.
Chaun Hightower, president of the Howard County Council of PTAs, said parents don't have enough knowledge of this form of bullying.
"We're hoping that parents walk away with all the different kinds of technology that are out there, what kind of things they can do to oversee that kind of technology, whether they have a child that's being bullied or bullying someone," Hightower said.
Hinduja said he has been collecting data on cyberbullying since 2002. About 20 percent of youths between the ages of 11 and 18 said in one study that they had been victims of cyberbullying, and about the same number admitted to the practice. Moreover, Hinduja said, about 10 percent said they had been both victims and offenders.
The study, conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center in 2010, involved a random sample of 4,441 youths from a large school district in the South.
Still, Hinduja said, cyberbullying should not be characterized as an epidemic.
In fact, he said, the biggest misconception about cyberbullying is that it is spiraling out of control and that schools cannot intervene if it occurs off campus or during evenings, weekends or summer breaks.
"They absolutely can intervene if it negatively affects the educational mission of the school, causes a substantial or material disruption at school, or infringes upon the rights of students to feel safe and secure at school," Hinduja said.
Misconceptions also exist about the links between cyberbullying and suicide, Hinduja said.
"It should be acknowledged that many of the teenagers who committed suicide after experiencing bullying or cyberbullying had other emotional and social issues going on in their lives," Hinduja said. "It tends to exacerbate instability and hopelessness in the minds of adolescents already struggling with stressful life circumstances."
For students, the biggest concern is that if they talk with an adult about cyberbullying, the adult "will respond irrationally and make things worse," Hinduja said.
"They also need to be informed as to how to protect themselves against it," he said.
Parents, for their part, worry about how to tell their kids how to safely navigate such social networking sites as Facebook as well as conversations on cellphones and online games. The biggest concern among teachers and administrators, he said, is when and how to intervene.
When children are bullied, parents should "make sure they feel — and are — safe and secure, and to convey unconditional support," Hinduja said. "Parents must demonstrate to their children through words and actions that they both desire the same end result: that the cyberbullying stop and that life does not become even more difficult.
"It is crucial that the school seeks to create and promote an atmosphere where certain conduct is simply not tolerated — by students and staff alike," he added. "In schools with healthy climates, students know what is appropriate and what is not, and behave accordingly."