Interview with Karin Stortz, LCSW on the Effects of Cyberbullying

About Karin Stortz, LCSW: Ms. Stortz specializes in educating and training individuals, groups and organizations in bullying prevention and positive youth development. She implements a thorough and solutions-oriented approach to guide parents, teachers, school administrators, and students through the necessary steps to identify, prevent and address bullying. Ms. Stortz offers private therapy services to adults, couples, families, and children, and has extensive experience helping adolescents recover from self-injury behaviors. In addition to counseling, Karin provides life coaching services to people who want guidance in achieving their personal and professional goals.

Ms. Stortz earned her Master of Social Work from Dominican University, and currently resides in Chicago, Illinois with her husband and 1-year old son. Her commitment to coaching people through such topics as self-empowerment, empathy, cyber safety, and mental health support and awareness prompted the Chicago’s Bullying Task Force to invite her to be a member of their team. She has also lead mental health and stress management training sessions at the Cook County Department of Corrections and works with many organizations throughout Illinois and nationwide. Karin Stortz was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] 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?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] First and foremost, I think it’s incredibly important to be mindful of the language we use when we talk about bullying. Without even thinking about it, we often use labels such as “victim,” “aggressor,” or “snitch,” which can actually harm the development of youth and cause unhealthy thinking patterns. Instead, I encourage neutral terms such as “target,” “perpetrator,” and “bystander.” Changing the way we talk about bullying can have a significant impact on communication, understanding, and individual empowerment.

In regards to the effects and impact of cyberbullying, it’s important to remember that youth see social networking as an extension of themselves. To quote Harvard Professor John Palfrey, “children born after the explosion of digital technology do not see a difference between their online and offline selves.” Therefore, what happens online can be just as painful – if not more painful – than a real-life bullying scenario.

Targets of bullying have an increased risk for depression. They may find it hard to relate to peers, and their grades may slip because they’re so worried about the situation. They’ll often isolate themselves. On the other hand, kids with bullying behaviors are three times more likely to be involved in the justice system by age 26. Their needs for power and control become unmanageable, and this often leads to bullying in relationships and in the workplace. Finally, bystanders – kids who witness bullying, but may not be directly involved in a bullying situation – develop increased anxiety.

To mitigate the harmful effects of bullying, school social workers, counselors, and therapists should focus on helping the target find sources of empowerment. Because bullying is all about power and control, it’s important for the target to gain back a sense of power and confidence in the situation. The standard advice to “just ignore it” does not work. Social workers should actively help targets of bullying practice body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and direct responses.

[] What are the primary platforms that cyberbullies use, and how do the differences among these platforms change how social workers, counselors, and parents should handle cyberbullying? As these platforms (for example Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) are constantly evolving, and new social media platforms are constantly being introduced, how can school social workers, parents, and school counselors stay current with the latest social media and communication technologies being used to commit cyberbullying?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] Currently, the primary platforms for cyberbullying are Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. In my practice, I am seeing the most bullying activity on Instagram — very “Mean Girls” types of things. Cyberbullying is hurtful and instant, and because we’re so plugged into technology, it can be hard to escape.

In my opinion, the differences between the platforms aren’t as relevant as we might think. The problem isn’t that we can’t keep up with emerging technology – it’s that many schools and communities need stronger anti-bullying cultures. Having a once-a-year school assembly isn’t enough, and “zero tolerance” isn’t effective – bullying just goes farther under the radar.

Schools should start by openly talking about the forms of bullying, including physical, verbal, and psychological bullying. Cyberbullying is typically psychological, and involves willful and repeated behavior through the use of technology. It’s not a one-time situation. Youth can use many tools, including computers, cell phones, and iPads. They might forward private text messages or emails, or even pretend to be someone they’re not. Cyberbullying differs from other forms of bullying in that the target may not know who is perpetrating the bullying. If you’re bullied in real life, you at least know who is confronting you, so you’re more empowered. But when you don’t know who’s saying what, you’ll become more isolated and afraid.

Prevention is key. An anonymous survey, where students are encouraged to share bullying behaviors they’ve experienced or witness, can shed a lot of light on what’s going on. From there, school social workers – either from the same district or multiple districts, depending on the school size – should form bullying committees. It’s good to consult with a school attorney as you’re forming policies, which should be as specific as possible. Vague or no-tolerance policies are rarely helpful. School policies should include specific definitions for harassment, intimidation, and bullying. They should also list gradual consequences, procedures for reporting, and procedures for investigations.

[] What is the responsibility of the school social worker when working with clients suffering from cyberbullying? On the flip side, what are the limitations of what a school social worker can do to help or protect his or her clients?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] It is the school’s responsibility to educate the community about bullying. Send the message that you take it seriously. The consequences must also be explicitly stated – both parents and students need to know what will happen if they engage in bullying behaviors. These messages should be reinforced in the classroom, especially when students are using technology. In addition to having specific rules about the use of technology, signage should be posted to remind students about expectations.

Schools also have a responsibility to talk about things that happen off campus. If what happens off campus impacts a student’s ability to learn, it can be the school’s responsibility. Unfortunately, the law hasn’t caught up with technology, and there are limitations as to how schools can intervene. Usually, the best thing to do is involve the parents. To help make a child’s learning environment safer and more comfortable, the social worker may need to help the child adjust his or her schedule, take a different bus route, or find other ways to avoid confrontation.

[] How should school social workers balance clients’ needs with legal considerations and people’s privacy? For example, is it ethical or legal for school social workers and school counselors to monitor the content that students post on social media sites or blogs?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] Legal considerations and privacy are concerns. It is always a good idea to work with school liaison officers, who can help conduct more thorough investigations. Sometimes, it may be best to recommend that parents themselves contact attorneys. School social workers can also encourage parents to contact social media sites or cell phone companies to request that content be removed or erased. In any case, it is always best to advise parents to keep track of all evidence.

[] What advice can school social workers give parents regarding cyberbullying and how to prevent/handle it?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] Always encourage parents to monitor their child’s technology use from a very young age. When children enter preteen or teen years, they will likely push back if you ask for their passwords. The key is to get involved earlier. When we teach kids how to drive, we’re able to communicate expectations and rules. Unfortunately, technology doesn’t have these safety features. Getting involved, monitoring their activity, and setting expectations at an early age are the best ways to prevent bullying activity later on.

[] How can parents with children who have been cyberbullied counteract the causes and effects of this type of bullying?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] I encourage parents to find a therapist or bullying prevention expert who specializes in empowerment for the target. Martial arts can also be an incredible tool, as it builds self-esteem and confidence.

[] How can parents whose children have been or are cyberbullies work with their children to curb this behavior?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] It all comes down to consequences. Parents can have a hard time setting firm rules, so it’s important to have these conversations before your child engages in bullying behaviors. That way, when and if it does become an issue, there is already a clear understanding as to what will happen. If the child has already engaged in bullying behaviors, an active empathy exercise can go a long way. Empathy is often out of the picture in cyberbullying, because the perpetrator can’t usually see the target’s reaction. Have a conversation and ask your child to reflect – how would they feel if this happened to them?

[] What additional resources do you recommend for parents and clients who have been victims of cyberbullying?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] The Cyberbullying Resource Center offers a tremendous amount of excellent materials.

[] How prevalent is cyberbullying outside of a school context? For example, is cyberbullying a major issue in the workplace, and for adults?

[Karin Stortz, LCSW] I can’t speak to whether or not it’s a major issue, per se, but it definitely exists. People with bullying behaviors who go without consequences – or don’t have proper consequences – can carry that behavior into adulthood. The power and control dynamic will continue to manifest in different ways, which can appear in the workplace, in relationships, in social circles, at home, and online.

Thank you Ms. Stortz for your time and insight into the mental, emotional, and social effects of cyberbullying, and how parents, teachers, and school administrators can help prevent and address bullying at school and beyond.

Last Updated: April 2020