Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Englander on Cyberbullying and Cyber Safety

About Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Ph.D.: Dr. Englander is the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) at Bridgewater State University, where she is also a professor of psychology. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from UC Berkeley, where she was also a Presidential Undergraduate Fellow. Dr. Englander received an All-University Pre-doctoral Merit Fellowship from the University of Southern California, where she earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology. She was also a National Institute of Mental Health Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New Hampshire.

She has collaborated with the Attorney General of Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts State Senate, and the Massachusetts Campus Safety Task Force through the Department of Higher Education on initiatives to address children’s violence. As the founder of MARC, Dr. Englander also provides free resources and programming to parents, educators, and students who wish to learn more about supporting mental health and non-aggressive conflict resolution among youth. MARC currently provides free Needs Assessments, in-school trainings, surveying services, downloadable games and educational materials, age-appropriate curricula, professional development programming for educators, and community and parent education to schools and communities nationwide.

In 2007, Dr. Englander authored the textbook Understanding Violence, which has become a standard academic text for understanding child development and violent criminal behavior. She has also written close to a hundred research articles for academic publications, and was the Special Editor for the Journal of Social Sciences’ Cyberbullying issue. In October 2013, Dr. Englander published Bullying and Cyberbullying, a book geared towards parents, school personnel, and other adults who are invested in understanding, preventing, and effectively addressing bullying and cyberbullying incidents. She has also responded to community questions in a column for the New York Times (online edition), and currently authors the columnBullying Bulletin Board. In addition, she is a regular guest on NPR and on other news outlets. Dr. Elizabeth Englander was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] In your book, you discuss the concept of gateway behaviors and how they relate to bullying and cyberbullying. Can you give a brief overview of this concept and the types of gateway behaviors school personnel should pay particular attention to when watching out for bullying and cyberbullying? Does cyberbullying typically start with one type of gateway behavior and escalate to harsher types?

[Dr. Englander] Gateway behaviors are psychological behaviors that convey contempt. In a digital environment, they would be remarks or photos. In person, it’s easy to miss gateway behaviors because individually they are very small transgressions; however, they accumulate and when frequent enough will change the psychological landscape of a school–like a type of psychological litter. The most common gateway behaviors are spreading rumors about someone, name-calling, whispering, laughing, rolling your eyes at someone to show contempt, etc.

[] What are the psychological, social, emotional, and physical effects of cyberbullying, and how can school social workers mitigate or handle these effects while working with a client who has experienced cyberbullying?

[Dr. Englander] Briefly, there are many effects, but they differ depending on the person’s characteristics, their resources, their social support, and the circumstances. Many times a target of cyberbullying experiences some emotional distress; occasionally, if the target has other struggles as well, very serious effects can occur, such as violence. Trauma is more pronounced among children who don’t have support from peers, friends, and family. It is more serious when it is a friend who attacks you, and it is more serious when the target is someone who fights a lot with friends (presumably because you get less support from friends you fight frequently with).

[] In our previous interviews, we learned that different types of cyberbullying include denigration, impersonation, flaming, outing/trickery, and cyberstalking. Can you please elaborate on these different forms of cyberbullying? How does the type of cyberbullying impact the necessary steps that school personnel and parents should take to prevent/address incidents on and off campus?

[Dr. Englander] In general, my research suggests that the repetition of cyberbullying is what’s most impactful, rather than the specific type of behavior that’s used to bully.

However, the type of cyberbullying could impact the steps taken to stop it. Cyberbullying is often a violation of the terms of service of the website or app used, and reporting that can be a first step. My research suggests that prevention can often be about learning how to use digital technology socially–learning, for example, that emotions can escalate online, or that self-focus can increase, which can lead to the user forgetting that another person is involved. Factors such as these can be learned and by making users aware and conscious of them, we can hopefully reduce cyberbullying.

[] What are the responsibilities of school social workers and other school personnel when working with children suffering from cyberbullying or other cyber safety issues? On the flip side, what are the limitations of what school staff can do to help or protect students from cyberbullying?

[Dr. Englander] Schools can and should be responsible for supporting a victim of cyberbullying. They can watch the situation at school; as children grow, the proportion of incidents that happen both in school and online grows with them. Schools can refer children to the pediatrician when necessary, and they can offer emotional support and help. In the United States, schools cannot often discipline a cyberbully, since the incident typically happens away from school. But if the behavior is criminal, they can help parents alert the police.

[] What are the essential elements of cyber safety (i.e. central best practices, key measures to protect children from cyber hazards, etc.)? What should parents, school social workers, teachers, and other school personnel do at the individual and community levels to help ensure children’s safety online?

[Dr. Englander] I think the most important practice for parents is to talk with their children about what they’re up to socially, how things are going at school, and what kinds of online and digital activities they enjoy. Explore what they like doing online, and ask them if they see problems with their peers or themselves, and what they think of that. What do they think is right, or wrong, behavior online? There really aren’t any rules, but should there be? How do kids handle things when people get mean online? What helps, and what makes things worse?

For schools, such discussions are helpful; they also need to educate children about how to use digital technology, and the social and perceptual changes that occur in digital environments (e.g., the increase in self-focus that I mentioned above).

[] What forms of technology should school personnel and parents be worried about the most, when it comes to cyberbullying and cyber safety? We know some schools are already banning certain types of social media apps. How do you recommend school personnel and parents keep up with all the new technologies that are being introduced today?

[Dr. Englander] I think that banning apps is of limited use, since children can simply use these apps when they’re not in school. However, I do think that schools should be discussing issues that underlie many different apps, to prepare children to use them. For example, there’s currently a trend moving from user-identifiable apps to apps that encourage anonymous use. These anonymous-use apps tend to have content that disintegrates into cruelty very quickly, and children need to discuss this issue together.

There are a number of these underlying issues, and children need to learn them and be taught how to manage them; that way, they will not only use current apps more wisely, but will also be prepared to use apps that appear in the future.

Thank you Dr. Englander for your time and insight into Cyberbullying and Cyber Safety.

The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center offers free curricula and programs that all reflect the most recent research. There are also informational brochures for parents.

Last updated: April 2020