Interview with Dr. Jonathan B. Singer on Cyberbullying

About Dr. Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW: Dr. Singer is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate classes. He earned his Ph.D. in Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh, and his Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Singer’s clinical and research interests include bullying, cyberbullying, and youth suicide prevention, and the use of technology in social work practice and education. He is currently working on a research project entitled: “School Social Workers’ Knowledge and Responses to Cyberbullying and Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors.” Jonathan B. Singer was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] What is your definition of cyberbullying? When should an incident of online teasing, embarrassment, or conflict be considered cyberbullying? What criteria must it meet?

[Dr. Singer] Everyone engages in online joking and teasing. For children and adolescents it’s totally developmentally appropriate to find out where the limits are. Something becomes bullying or cyberbullying when there’s a pattern of repeated actions that are intended to cause harm to the other person. It’s abuse. There are a number of different forms of cyberbullying that we often talk about. The one that I was just describing is closest to what we call harassment, which is repeatedly sending offensive, rude or insulting messages to somebody. Then there’s also denigration, and that’s, say when somebody’s on Facebook, and they write a status post about somebody else, and that status post is untrue, and it’s intended to hurt the other person. So it might not necessarily be a direct message, but if I said, “Andrew is a big fat fatty and nobody likes him, and his mom couldn’t wait to get rid of him,” – if I knew that Andrew was adopted, then that could be considered denigration. Then there’s flaming, which is online fighting. Flaming is a tough one because if both sides are engaging, if it’s an actual online fight, then it can be difficult to identify who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, and that’s one of the big challenges with cyberbullying.

Now, there’s always impersonation, which is when I take over the account of somebody whom I want to totally demean socially, and start posting content about things they might be concerned about, like “I cheat on all of my tests,” or “My dad is an alcoholic,” or “I’m gay,” or whatever content that person might feel would be embarrassing and cause them true harm.

Then there are things like outing and trickery. For example, somebody tells me something in confidence and I share that with others with or without the intention of causing harm. If a 12 year old comes out to his friend and the best friend shares that online it would literally be “outing.” If the best friend threatened to go public with the information and the 12-year-old feels blackmailed or manipulated, then this could also be considered cyberbullying even though the information never came out online.

And then there’s cyberstalking, which is really this sort of sense of repeated messages, either in the way we think about sexual harassment or even just, “I’m going to get you,” or “Your life is over.”

These are examples of different forms of cyberbullying. Now if somebody says one thing that is harmful or inappropriate, even if I say, “I’m going to hunt you down and kill you”–that is an aggressive, violent threat, but it doesn’t necessarily constitute cyberbullying. Bullying is something that is repeated and intended to cause harm. You can have things that cause harm that are not repeated and so therefore they do not constitute cyberbullying. Nobody would consider a single act of sexual assault to be bullying, but sexual assault is clearly violent and it is clearly hurtful. So those are some of the ways to think about cyberbullying, and the distinction between something that might be violence, joking, or teasing, and then what we would consider cyberbullying.

[] Can you briefly describe the different types of cyberbullying that are most common today? How do these forms of cyberbullying differ from each other in terms of their effects on the victim?

[Dr. Singer] To my knowledge there is no research on which forms of cyberbullying are most common. Even if that research existed, it would need to be updated regularly. When youth were communicating primarily through text messages using flip phones, and not on computers, then texting was a very common form of cyberbullying. As new technologies are developed, then cyberbullying occurs on those new technologies. Youth tend to be leaving Facebook these days, for Instagram and Snapchat. There are also location based apps–for example, with Yak, you can communicate with people who are in your geographic location only. As far as I know, there’s no research that has identified which technology is used most commonly that is controlling for usage. By that I mean, if a million kids text and only 1000 use Yak, if 999 on Yak engage in cyberbullying and 1000 kids cyberbully using text, then more kids are being cyberbullied using text, but it is a more prevalent problem on Yak.

There’s no research on how the forms of cyberbullying are different in terms of their effects on the victim. What we do know is that social media sites where students can be engaged in significant group attacks and can be anonymous can be very, very harmful, whereas a text exchange with a single person, while it can certainly be emotionally damaging, is not necessarily going to be as destructive as that kind of group online attack.

[] According to our research, the numerous types of cyberbullying and the constant changes in technology have made it difficult for school administrators, teachers, and parents to detect, define, and appropriately address cyberbullying incidents. Do you have any suggestions as to the signs that parents and school personnel should look out for?

[Dr. Singer] The signs and symptoms of cyberbullying are similar to that of many other psychosocial problems in terms of the ways that the effects of cyberbullying manifest in both the victim and the perpetrator. Victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying tend to have issues with self-esteem, anger, frustration, poor social skills or obsession with social status. Having these issues does not mean that cyberbullying is happening. For example, if a child is being secretive about his or her computer use, it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t mean he or she is either a perpetrator or a victim, but it is a warning sign, and something that parents should look out for.

School personnel likewise, should be very clear on what the expectations are for use of technology in the school, as well as establishing what we call a “safe school community,” which is where the students in the school understand that even when school hours end, if they engage with other students, that their behavior can affect those students during school hours and to be mindful of how they behave.

But in terms of signs and symptoms that are smoking guns (no pun intended), specifically for cyberbullying, there are none, except for direct proof that cyberbullying has occurred. The other signs and symptoms are those that are similar to other psychosocial issues, including offline bullying, substance use, and other types of social, socio-emotional learning issues.

[] When a school social worker, counselor, or administrator discovers that a student has either experienced cyberbullying or cyberbullied others, how can he/she plan and implement an effective intervention? How does intervention differ between traditional types of bullying versus cyberbullying?

[Dr. Singer] One of the challenges with the rise in cyberbullying as a cultural phenomenon is that cyberbullying has outpaced the development of interventions. An article that will be published in the School Social Work Journal by my colleague Karen Slovak and I, discusses school social workers’ responses to cyberbullying. We focus on interventions for low-, moderate-, and high-severity cyberbullying. Interventions will vary based on the severity of the cyberbullying.

Strengths-based and solutions-focused techniques are good for low-severity cyberbullying. For example, if you have an experience where it’s a week of online harassment, and the victim has not yet experienced the most negative outcomes we might consider, such as self-injury, things like that, then you can step in and use low-level interventions such as reframing the behavior in a way that the victim and the perpetrator can understand it differently. So rather than being punitive with the perpetrator, work towards understanding, awareness, tapping into the perpetrator’s sense of empathy.

And if the perpetrator is able to respond to that then you have actually done a really good thing because you’ve intervened in a non-punitive way, and of course the punitive approaches model for the perpetrator that one should address conflict or issues with power and control, which is exactly what you don’t want to reinforce. You can intervene in low or moderate cyberbullying situations by having the perpetrator and the victim talk it out, come up with a plan, those sorts of things, involve the others who might have been involved online in their social networks and communities.

The most severe forms of cyberbullying, those where there might be laws broken, that sort of stuff, are situations where interventions require establishing the safety of the child–the victim, as well as the perpetrator, and then coordinating with school administrators and possibly with law enforcement personnel.

Now the other types of things that school social workers should think about when intervening all have to do with the technical things, like ramping up online safety, so make sure that the student changes passwords, establishes healthy privacy settings, maybe restricts their Twitter profile or their Instagram account. Those are standard cybersafety practices, but certainly they would be part of any intervention at any level to make sure that the online environment is safe for the child.

[] For MSW students who are interested in working with youth and adults who are victims of bullying and cyberbullying, how would you recommend they prepare for this area of work, both academically and in their field education? How are MSW programs adapting to the changes that technology has brought to when, where, and how students and other people are bullied and harassed?

[Dr. Singer] The answer to this sounds very pedantic. First, if you want to work with a certain population, you have to learn to speak the language of that population. That means that, if you’re going to work with children and adolescents, and you’re not familiar with technology, you have to become familiar with technology. You might not like to play video games, but you at the very least need to know what MineCraft is, you have to know what all of these most popular games are and what the different types are, for example, first person shooter games or building games or world creation kind of games. Same thing with technology. Facebook might annoy you and you might have no interest in taking pictures with your cell phone, but you need to know what Facebook’s privacy settings are, and what Instagram is, and Snapchat, and all of these things.

I recommend doing what my colleague Mike Langlois, who is a clinical social worker and professor in Boston, did. He contacted me and a couple of other folks and he said, “Hey I’m interested in learning how to use Snapchat, because my adolescent clients are using Snapchat.” And so we all signed on and we learned how to Snapchat. You can do the same thing with most technologies.

In addition to the things that individuals can do, there are professional training opportunities. Coursework at the university level in an MSW program should include resources that talk about the state of the art for what technologies are out there and what youth are using. Of course they’ll always be behind the times, so the best source is your actual clients, but students should be fully prepared to be one step behind their clients when it comes to technology, and so asking questions during internship or in first jobs such as, “What sorts of technologies do you use? How do they affect your life? What are the technologies your friends use that you don’t like to use? Do you think technology is helpful or harmful?” So asking all sorts of questions will help you get an idea, for your particular client, what is the role of technology in their life. This idea has been formalized by Ellen Belluomini who developed the Technology Assessment for Families . In terms of accreditation and certification, I know the Online Therapy Institute provides an online certification. I don’t know if that’s necessary in this day and age when working with kids. It might be someday, when more and more things happen online but I just think that schools need to provide information, they need to be open to students in those programs providing information that they think other students should know about technology, and following traditional coursework in terms of understanding how schools work, what the systems are, what the different roles are, what your role will be as a school social worker, and then overlaying that with your specific knowledge of technology and the ways that technologies are being used and abused by kids.

[] How do you recommend school administrators and other school leaders train their staff in cyberbullying prevention and intervention? What resources would be helpful to school social workers, counselors, and teachers who wish to learn more about and effectively address cyberbullying?

[Dr. Singer] Cyberbullying is really the wild west in terms of curricula. There are programs that have been designed for traditional offline bullying, which have not necessarily been found to reduce online bullying, partly because some of the issues are different. For offline bullying, the training for staff tends to revolve around if you see or hear something then you can intervene, otherwise it’s a “he said, she said” situation.

The most basic and time-tested approach to reducing any school violence or victimization is establishing the “safe school environment.” And that is something that you do when you let students know from an early age and that it’s reinforced that abuse, acts of power, harassment and trickery, and those types of behaviors, not only are they not approved of by adults, but that a climate is created in which students don’t think it’s cool. Students are taught that there is no way to climb the social ladder by engaging in those types of abusive behaviors. And when that happens, then it’s harder for bullies and perpetrators to engage in these behaviors. Bullying and cyberbullying is almost always a social act, it is something that is done in front of others for social gain or social status. Maybe the perpetrator is doing it not necessarily to climb the ladder, but to make themselves feel more powerful. It’s possible that they are victims at home, and they are acting out–there are all sorts of reasons why people engage in these types of behaviors.

But making sure that the school is a safe school environment is essential. One of the recommendations by danah boyd, who goes by the Twitter handle @zephoria . She recommends that professionals develop professional social media accounts, where the rules are essentially, you are allowed to friend me, if you do I will friend you back. My account password is known by me and my boss (i.e. the school principal or school administrator), and anything that you post on my wall or to my account can be seen by anybody else. It’s a way to engage with students in an online environment that provides informed consent. It says, “This is not a personal thing, it’s a professional thing, and as such there are other professionals who have access to this.” Then it enables students to engage in ways that they feel comfortable. It doesn’t mean that it’ll solve all the problems in the world, but it is certainly something that school administrators should consider when talking to school personnel.

The flipside is that there shouldn’t be a blanket rule that all school staff should have a professional account, that all the professional accounts should friend all the students in the school. Because that is unwieldy, impossible to monitor, and there’s this expectation that you have an online presence and that you will be engaging in those behaviors online and if you don’t then there’s something wrong. Those are some of the recommendations for school administrators to talk with and work with their school staff on cyberbullying.

Thank you Dr. Singer for your time and insight into cyberbullying education, prevention and intervention.

Last updated: April 2020