Mammoth effort, limited results: Why is it that even conscientious schools can struggle to reduce cyberbullying?

In this post, PhD student Donna Pennell discusses her research which uncovered hidden influences on schools that were hindering their efforts to reduce student cyberbullying.


Student cyberbullying: Can’t more be done?

Cyberbullying occurs when a student is intentionally, repeatedly and harmfully targeted by someone who simply wishes to wield their online power. It can be a miserable experience – it disrupts friendships, stresses and upsets, belittles and isolates. It is hard for students to avoid when most study and socialise online.

Cyberbullying emerges during early adolescence, making the school setting an ideal focus of both remedy – and blame – for the problem. This is particularly the case when cyberbullying’s role is alarmingly implicated in yet another fragile young person opting to take their own life.

Many may remember that their own school bullying experiences went relatively unchallenged by school staff, but nowadays schools understand that they must work hard to prevent and intervene in student bullying, and by extension, cyberbullying.

But perhaps the critics are right, maybe schools are not doing enough to stop cyberbullying?

A recent study

To consider this question, the members of two independent secondary school communities were asked about what they did to reduce cyberbullying. Participants were school leaders, specialists, teachers, parents and students. While media headlines can make schools an easy target of blame, the investigators found that the study schools’ approaches were wide-ranging and based on current knowledge. They did not seem to be at fault for under-performing in their efforts to reduce cyberbullying.

Even so, some participants questioned – as did the investigators – why were their schools’ measures not as successful as the they had hoped for reducing cyberbullying amongst students?

Are school actions the only influence on student cyberbullying?

Scouring the data for answers in the study, it became apparent that the wider society was playing a subtle role in school actions. Schools were at the very epicentre of:

  1. a changing technological culture requiring schools to adopt Internet-enabled tools for learning
  2. a multiplicity of confusing laws for schools and young people about cyberbullying, and
  3. a media-informed public perception of cyberbullying as a leading cause of youth suicide

Put simply, schools’ were unaware their measures to reduce cyberbullying were being shaped by wider society.

And what did this look like? Far too many student-safety responsibilities which were all vying for school attention, such as:

  • having to keep students safe from any-and-all technology misuse likely to endanger them
  • ensuring that students – and the school – were kept away from any legal ramifications of cyberbullying, and
  • trying to make students safe from the frightening harms of cyberbullying.

Community influences on schools

As well, the schools’ communities – those just outside the school gate – were also responding and reacting to these wider societal influences.

1. Parent community

While schools had adapted to being online for learning, and most teens had taken to it like a duck to water, parents were not great moderators of the technological worlds of their children. Schools handled much of the cyberbullying fallout – even if it started at a party on a Saturday night. This influenced schools to frequently focus their preventative education about technology use. Schools ever-so-slightly missed their educational mark, because cyberbullying is far less about technology than is often thought – cyberbullying education needs to be about relationships which is so much more than learning to adjust one’s privacy settings.

Parents also reacted by imagining drastic outcomes for their children if they were involved in school cyber incidents. Principals said that some were so ‘worried’ that they bypassed school interventions in favour of a word with their lawyer. These parental/legal pressures influenced schools to prioritise student safety (e.g., ‘just change your password’). While stopping immediate harm, students were disappointed when schools failed to address their cyberbullying perpetrators – a situation likely to reduce student reporting of their own victimisation.

2. Commercially-available expert community

Both study schools considered visiting groups and cyber-experts a vital part of their all-encompassing approach. Parents found cyber-expert presentations illuminating, but students thought they demonised technology (e.g., fuelling misplaced adult fears about the-ever-lurking online predator). Presentations did not cover what students really wanted to know – how to stop someone they knew at school from cyberbullying them.

3. Private school system community

The private school system responded interestingly to the societal conditions of cyberbullying. Private schools quickly enabled one-to-one technologies as a way of differentiating themselves from the state system (pleasing parents wanting an advantageous technological edge for their children). Then the system marketed to fear, by selling themselves as ‘safer’ schools, promoting all the private school bells and whistles – more counsellors, involved teachers, expensive online monitoring systems. Such influences nudged schools toward guarantees that ‘serious’ cyberbullying was unlikely ‘at this school’. However, the more common breeding grounds for student cyberbullying – minimised as ‘relationship squabbles’ or just the usual ‘to-and-fro on Facebook’ – had to be down-played or overlooked.

4. School legal-advice community

Society’s legal framework around cyberbullying confused those in the schools, influencing them to seek advice. Staff were sent to cyber-conferences, and leaders turned to local police. These advice-communities were not equipped to be the needed legal compass for clarifying in-school actions. This spilled into anti-bullying policies which were peppered with an array of laws and legal jargon, resulting in documents that were not practical, useful or read.

So what does it all mean

Society and community does influence the anti-cyberbullying actions of schools. Listening to those within schools is useful in gaining understanding about the impacts of media, law and technology on schools. This research shows that new solutions to student cyberbullying may be opened if we also consider factors that lie outside the bounds of schools. It is also clear that some influences can dangerously overwhelm the voices of young people from whom we can gain great insights for reducing the problem in schools.


Donna Pennell is a HDR member of C4IE and a PhD student interested in how schools view legal solutions to student cyberbullying. She is a registered primary and special education teacher, but has substantially worked as a senior research assistant – for over 20 years – supporting all kinds of educational research. Donna’s previous publications report on the education and inclusion of people with developmental disabilities. Aligned with her doctoral studies, her more recent interests lie in the prevention and intervention of student bullying.



  • Donna

    Thanks for the positive comment, Jo. It’s important to consider that we all have a role to play – health fields included (especially those in schools) – in reducing cyberbullying.

  • Jo. Community case manager/RN

    Excellent article, well researched and clear in its thinking and approach.
    I have forwarded it on to my school nurse, social worker and family therapist peers.
    Well done.

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