Interview with Shellie Leger, MSW on the Effects of Cyberbullying

About Shellie Leger, MSW: Ms. Leger is a psychotherapist in West Paris, ME. She has worked in both healthcare and education for the past 25 years, and has a particular interest in the unique challenges and struggles of adolescents. Ms. Leger earned her MSW from Hunter College and her MBA at Lesley University. She is also a published author of short stories and a novel. Find her written works on her website . Shellie Leger 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?

[Shellie Leger, MSW] When a child/adolescent is tormented, intimidated, threatened, humiliated, embarrassed or targeted in any way by a peer through use of Internet/phone, she may become depressed, anxious, isolated and may even be driven to suicide. It is not uncommon to develop school phobia, deflated self-esteem, lower achievement in academics and even a deterioration of physical health. School social workers may find that the professional school counselors already have psycho-educational programs in place for students regarding cyber bullying, and that school administrators likely have policies and procedures in place to address the matter as well.

School social workers would do well to ally with systems that have already been put in place at their host schools, determine the appropriate role to play in those systems, and become well-versed in school policy, etc. Co-facilitating a psycho-educational group with the professional school counselor, nurse or other staff as the case dictates is optimal. It brings together several vital disciplines within the school to address the issue from a multi-system perspective.

Additionally, there are many evidence-based curricula available to school personnel to choose from when investigating a good fit for their particular school setting. In schools where there is no formal approach to cyberbullying, the school social worker may find himself in the unique situation of being the leader in creating programming to address cyberbullying. Of course, this will require close work with other key parties, including parents, students and community leaders. Of particular interest is any curriculum that is organized around upstanding. Whenever students can be mobilized and empowered to actively participate in creating programming you will find robust young leaders committed to positive change. Leadership training is key!

[] 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?

[Shellie Leger, MSW] The primary platforms are Facebook and Twitter, but others are edging up in popularity for cyber bullying. In short, any technology that allows the bully to target the victim e.g. web-sites, blogs etc., is a venue for cyber bullying. There are no appreciable differences among these platforms that would change how caregivers/providers/etc 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?

Many of us are NOT in fact tech savvy and may not be aware of the astonishing speed with which new platforms are introduced and old ones evolve. It is therefore necessary to identify a committee of school personnel whose sole function in the larger task force is to stay abreast of the latest technologies and inform others in the larger group.

[] 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?

[Shellie Leger, MSW] The school social worker must be aware of signs of cyberbullying. Some are mentioned above already, others may be unusually aggressive language, fighting words, change in sleeping/eating habits, and lack of interest in things they usually enjoy even if they don’t fit DSM criteria for depression or anxiety. School social workers should understand that not all meanness communicated electronically is cyberbullying, and should assess the severity of the problem with the student and evaluate for coping and functioning as in any other instance where a child presents as struggling.

The social worker should also educate, provide resources and make appropriate referrals to other mental health providers as needed, and especially so in the setting of self-injurious behavior, or suspicion of the same. When kids are cyberbullied, it is almost always by kids in their own school so it is useful to help the student and their family navigate the system and laws built to protect them as well as understand how to contact internet service providers and print and keep any evidence as documentation of cyberbullying and teach students and parents how to be safe in the cyber world. School social workers should research the bullying prevention laws in their state and initiate contact (if allowed by school) with local police. In fact, having a policeman/woman on a school team for bullying prevention is always an excellent idea. Police often are well-versed in administering inventories to determine level of risk to kids being cyerbullied.

Despite schools’ best intentions to rally around the issue of cyberbullying, they are not required to follow any particular mandates if they can demonstrate that they don’t have the budget to do so. The school social worker should know, however, that school officials are now required by law to investigate and take action to prevent cyberbullying. Offenders can be fined and even sent to jail, and if hacking or password/identity theft is involved, it can be a serious criminal matter under state and federal law. Be mindful that when schools try to get involved by disciplining students for cyberbullying that took place off-campus and outside school hours, they are often sued for exceeding their authority and violating free speech rights and usually lose. The first amendment can trump the “bully laws.”

[] 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?

[Shellie Leger, MSW] Some schools are already monitoring social media in the name of student safety. Of note, the 4th amendment guarantees its citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant issued with probable cause and a reasonable expectation of privacy in what’s being searched. The “reasonable expectation of privacy” doesn’t apply when it comes to social media because whatever students are posting can be seen by anyone. It’s invasive and in that regard can be seen as unethical, but not illegal. The ACLU believes this to be dicey, but when you have a public profile, there’s no limit to who sees your posts, etc.

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

[Shellie Leger, MSW] Get involved!!! Have the conversation just as you would about sex, drugs, etc.; encourage the student to tell his or her mom/dad/caregiver so that they can assist the child in how best to proceed, including:

  • Ignoring /blocking messages
  • Reporting to the ISP
  • Contacting police/the school if you believe there is danger
  • Reviewing friend lists
  • Never posting or sharing personal information online
  • Never sharing passwords with anyone, not even friends, but DO share with parents, etc.
  • Save and print out any evidence of cyberbullying
  • Think before you click
  • Don’t open messages from strangers, and don’t meet with anyone

Other measures that parents can take to help prevent and address cyberbullying include:

  • Keeping computers in a busy area
  • Setting up accounts with your kids
  • Knowing their screen names and passwords
  • Know the lingo
  • Don’t threaten to take away computer privileges
  • Don’t bully back!!

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

[Shellie Leger, MSW] They can educate others and get involved in schools’ efforts to counteract cyberbullying and create leaders. They can start anti-bullying groups like MADD and raise awareness in their communities by holding assemblies, etc., putting up anonymous drop boxes for students to report, and mapping “hotspots” for where bullying occurs.

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

[Shellie Leger, MSW] Sensitivity awareness/education–drunk drivers go to classes, batterers attend anger management support groups/trainings, etc. Cyberbullies must be educated and trained. But the victims’ needs must be addressed first, so bullies are not “rewarded” but rather disempowered. Teach them that there are 100 solutions between submission and violence.

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

[Shellie Leger, MSW] Some resources that are available:

Thank you Ms. Leger for your time and insight into the psychological, social, emotional, and physical effects of cyberbullying.

Last updated: April 2020