Interview with Dr. Scott Poland on the Effects of Bullying and Cyberbullying

About Professor Scott Poland, Ed.D.: Dr. Poland is a Professor at the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University. He has over 26 years of experience in suicide prevention, school safety, school crisis management, adolescent mental health, and anti-cyberbullying education. Dr. Poland has lead lectures and trainings for parents, school administrators, school psychologists, and police forces on topics such as student safety, bullying prevention, and mental health counseling.

Dr. Poland has presented over 1,000 workshops nationwide and in several foreign countries, and has testified four times before the U.S. Congress regarding children’s needs. He also developed and led one of the largest adventure-based counseling programs in the nation, with over 100,000 students and staff participating in his ROPES program. He has served on the President’s Roundtable on Youth Violence, and is a founding member of the National Emergency Assistance Team for the National Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Poland is also the Prevention Director for the American Association of Suicidology, and is a Past President of the National Association of School Psychologists.

[] Could you please elaborate a bit on your professional background, and how you got into the field of cyberbullying prevention?

[Dr. Poland] I did work for many years in schools, 26 years directing psychological services for a large district. I’m very interested in all bullying prevention, not just cyberbullying. One of my greatest passions has been suicide prevention. I wrote my first book on that going all the way back to 1989. And I have had really countless trainings and have spoken to the state legislatures, and I have actually had the chance to speak to Congress on four different occasions. I have to be honest in that I believe that I, like many people in schools, did not pay enough attention to bullying a few decades ago. It certainly has been on the national agenda for at least the last few years. Although I think realistically if you would look at when most legislation passed about bullying prevention programs in schools, it’s pretty much from 2008 forward and I think the final state, which I believe was South Dakota, finally passed legislation about a year ago.

[] 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. Poland] There’s this strong connection, unfortunately, between bullying and suicide. In fact the Suicide Prevention Resource Center published a really excellent brief where they review the literature and basically found a strong association between bullying and suicide. Strongest association actually for those that are the victim in some situations and are the bully in other situations. Actually what I’m hoping is that this recognition will not only drive bullying prevention, but will also cause schools and communities to pay more attention to the need for youth suicide prevention programs as well.

When I was a kid, once you got home your house was the safe haven. No one could reach you. Basically there was a telephone, and homes when I grew up only had a telephone with a cord on it. I like to joke that my entire adolescence was my mother sitting next to that phone.

But today with the advent of all of the technology it’s like the home is not necessarily a safe haven at all. There is some literature indicating that perhaps one third of all adolescent girls wake up in the middle of the night to check and see what might have been posted about them. I think that we have to recognize that the impact of it is really quite severe.

[] How can school social workers mitigate the negative mental and emotional effects of cyberbullying when working with clients?

[Dr. Poland] In terms of possible solutions, I really think that it’s a threefold approach. First of all I get to talk to parents a lot and I try to get parents to take charge of the technology–basically to realize that all of it is a privilege. It is not a right. And I’m actually really a big fan of the desktop [computer], not the laptop. We need to stop setting kids’ rooms up to be little kingdoms where they have every communication device known to man. We need to have parents set really strong limits: know passwords and demand to really be involved, stay involved.

Here’s an example for you. My wife is a middle school principal. And every year she has me come talk to the 6th grade parents at her private school. And I give them this message about taking charge, privilege not a right, you can’t let your happiness depend on whether or not your kids like you right now. You are the parents, you need to be in control, etc. etc. And actually it always goes over really well. But last year when I got home, she said, “Well the parents loved what you had to say. They want you to come back.” And I said, “Well why would I come back?” “Well they want YOU to be the one to tell their children they need to do things differently.”

And I hate to say it, but by almost sixth grade they’ve given away the farm so to speak. I do believe everything is extremely advanced today in terms of what kids are exposed to. I often say to parents, by the time you realize you need to talk to your kids about something, I’m going to bet you’re two years behind. Somebody else already gave them a lot of information about this topic. So I think a big part of it is parents taking charge of the situation.

I gave a talk to some parents in Atlanta last fall and I was really saying the charging stations for the cell phones should be in the parents’ bedroom. At 10:30 at night, tell your adolescent, “Give me your phone, honey. I will charge it, I will hand it back to you when you get up in the morning.”

This one mom stayed behind to talk to me and here’s what she said, “What if my 8th grader’s friends needed to talk to her in the middle of the night? They wouldn’t be able to reach her.” And I was like, “Well what’s wrong with your kids’ friend talking to their own parent if something is so pressing. And if you have your daughter’s phone, I guess you can answer it at 2:30 in the morning if you want to.”

So I think we can really stop a lot of this with trained, involved, empowered parents, and I do believe that the school systems have the expertise and the technology to help parents keep up. I always recommend that school systems have meetings and trainings for parents on what to look for, what to do, and how to handle these situations.

I’ll use my wife’s school as an example. Every fall they basically have classroom instruction on what they call “digital citizenship.” Basically, not only is there a lot of information for parents, there’s a lot of information for kids about being careful in these areas, how you conduct yourself, what you say, explaining that yes there will be consequences at schools. The schools are wrestling with, alright, it’s cyberbullying, but it occurred at home, it involved the computer, we shouldn’t really get involved in that, should we? But the answer is really pretty simple: when the cyberbullying disrupts learning, which is almost every single time (because the kid who is victimized comes to school and can’t concentrate because there are all kinds of rumors going around), that’s when principals and assistant principals need to get involved.

Sometimes the cyberbullying is so severe that the police might actually need to be involved. I know that part of what you’re interested in is the role of social workers. Generally, I put school social workers, school counselors, and school psychologists all together. Unfortunately school social workers and school psychologists are spread way too thin, but support personnel can have really key roles. One of course is supporting the students who are being bullied.

For school social workers, counselors, and administrators, it’s important to let the kid know that, first of all you don’t deserve this. We are going to get this stopped. No, it’s not something you’re doing that is bringing this upon yourself. There are going to be consequences for the bullies. They’re going to know that this is the consequence this time, if this continues we’re all watching you, and the consequences will escalate.

I think the keys to cyberbullying really are, information, education, adults involved, monitoring and supervision, consequences, and when a kid is really abusing all of those technology privileges, they really need to be restricted.

[] What role specifically can school social workers and school counselors play in preventing and addressing cyberbullying both at their schools and in the larger community?

[Dr. Poland] What we really want is the school social worker to be seen as a right hand person, indispensable, really valuable. A number of years ago I was the president of the National Association of School Psychologists, and I used to joke, “You know how school psychologists can really affect schools? Be married to the superintendent.” And I’m not really joking–in other words, it’s like we have to establish credibility, good close relationships, and we have to be persistent and persuasive. We might have to print out articles from the School Principals Association that really drive home key points.

At the simplest level, wouldn’t it be great if every school had a bullying prevention task force? Okay let’s spend some time on this. There’s a social worker, the principal, a couple of teachers, let’s start some planning, let’s maybe even put a student on our task force. Or maybe we decide to survey our students so we can figure out the scope of the problem. And then we might even want to involve parents, and figure out ways we can provide really important information to parents.

And I do believe one person, a social worker for example, can be incredibly powerful in just a matter of being knowledgeable, having the ability to present information, being persistent, persuasive, and really trying to get schools to focus on this. And one thing that I think is going to happen ultimately is that some of the legal cases are going to ask schools to pay more attention. If we can get much more in the prevention mode. Recognizing, alright, bullying is happening at every school in America. What are we going to do about it here? They have to be aware of all the national research, how can you sit there and know that 30 percent of middle school kids are going to tell you that they’re the victim of bullying, and yet you’re sitting there thinking it doesn’t happen at our school?

[] For that one person, who you said can make a big impact, not only in the school but in the larger community, how can such an individual get the training they need to make the impact they desire? Where can school social workers find resources that give them actionable information about cyberbullying prevention?

[Dr. Poland] Great question. One thing that I think is very important is to be very familiar with the information on the U.S. Department of Education website. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has a Stop Bullying Now resource that has really great information, and it does get updated. I’m also a really big fan of GLSEN: Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which has a lot of information about bullying prevention. Also, national social workers’ organizations, national school psychologist and school counselor organizations, and principals’ associations can also have a lot of information available about cyberbullying.

There’s one really interesting teaching tool that I show in my classes; it’s a documentary calledBullied, and it’s actually produced by the Southern Law Poverty Center. It is free to schools. It’s a documentary about a kid, he’s no longer a kid, named Jamie Nabozny, in Ashland, Wisconsin. He was the first kid in the nation to ever successfully sue his school for failing to protect him from bullying and harassment. It’s really an excellent documentary. It’d be like the perfect staff training: show the documentary, look at the guide that comes with it, have discussions about our school after teachers have viewed the documentary.

There are of course a lot of books about bully proofing, bullying prevention. I think one of the responsibilities we all have is to keep up with the latest information. I believe that schools dohave resources when they decide to put their mind to something. In other words, if we put together that task force, you have the principal, the social worker, the director of instruction, a teacher, a counselor, and we all decide, let’s really get into this, let’s find out what the best resources are, let’s look at the U.S. Department of Education website. I believe that we can come up with a good program for our school, and we can figure out how to get our students and our parents involved in a way that’s effective but not prohibitively expensive.

[] As a professor who has taught psychology courses as well as parent/school seminars, do you know if MSW and psychology programs are incorporating cyberbullying training in their curricula?

[Dr. Poland] I think the content you’re talking about could be placed in certain courses. For example, I teach a class called clinical intervention, and I put it in there, but somebody else could be teaching the same class, and it wouldn’t necessarily be in that class. It might be a few pages in a textbook but it probably wouldn’t be stressed that much.

I have unfortunately not seen any academic classes specifically devoted bullying prevention. It’s just a matter of what professors might recognize the importance of putting it in certain classes, and I guess this next comment won’t be really very kind to administrators, but I think in particular the coursework that people take to get their administrative certificate is really lacking in any kind of cyberbullying prevention focus. I think it’s much more about school finance and any kind of accountability testing, and supervision and evaluation of teachers, and pretty lacking on things that I think are really important like school safety, bullying prevention, suicide prevention, having crisis teams, stress assessment, all those kinds of things.

[] So for students who really want to make a difference in bullying prevention, they would have to do a lot of research and work on their own unless their professor decides to include that content in their classes?

[Dr. Poland] Yes, and then I think that most of the areas I just mentioned are just more trainingafter school social workers and school psychologists start working at schools. And it might be things that you need to seek out on your own, although hopefully the district is going to bring somebody with really good knowledge in those areas, and it can be one of those in-service training days, during which the school could lead a presentation on bullying prevention that includes cyberbullying.

One of the biggest problems with in-service training for teachers is that, because of the state accountability tests, these trainings often focus much more on students’ academic performance, rather than on their mental and/or emotional health. I’ll often get calls like this from schools: “Well we have narrowed down our openings for in-service trainings for the entire staff. It’s either going to be you talking about bullying prevention, or it’s going to be differentiated instruction.” In today’s world, schools go with differentiated instruction every time. Because that has to do with the school and the district’s rating. So I think the insane emphasis on the state accountability testing actually results in less time being devoted to prevention including anything having to do with bullying.

[] You mentioned that prevention is key and absolutely crucial. But for parents, school social workers, and school administrators who have a child or several students who have been bullied or who are bullies, what can they do once the situation has passed the point of prevention?

[Dr. Poland] With the victims sometimes it may reach a point where there needs to be outside counseling. We might even need to consider changing schools. Either a transfer request to another public school or if parents can possibly make this happen, going to a smaller private school. Not that it’s going to be perfect, but my wife’s current middle school has 450 students. The school she used to be the principal of in Houston had 1450 students. If the school is 1/3 smaller, there’s just the chance to have a lot more control over what is happening. And obviously it’s not going to be perfect, and certainly there’s still bullying in private schools as well, but it changes your venue.

Now if we go to the person who is the bully, they may need to be placed in an alternative educational setting. They may need counseling themselves. They might actually be the victim in some situations, and the bully in another situation, but they do need consequences. And I’m not one that believes that much of the answer is suspension or expulsion–I think the solution really requires structure, counseling, trying to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.

And another key part of the solution is, how can schools get a supportive reaction from the parents of the bully? How do they make sure that parents don’t think that in some way the school is implying that they’re a crappy parent, that’s why they’re having this conference. How do we get them working with us? Sometimes I’ll ask schools this question, “Alright, if you know the kid is the bully, why do you hesitate before you call his parents?” And the answer every time is, “We’re thinking that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. The parents are gonna yell at us, blame us, deny their kids’ behavior problem.” So how do we help parents understand that we sincerely care about every kid, even the kid that’s the bully, we want to figure out how to help them.

I’m trying to think of who said this, but I certainly agree with it: Why don’t we realize in America that the most important thing is to put our children first? Once you decide to put children first, then you have funding for schools, you have smaller classes, you have more counselors, more social workers, you have more of everything, and the chance to really improve things. And part of my background is that I’ve responded to a lot of school shootings, and I have written about this quite a bit; I’ve had an oped that appeared in a number of papers a couple weeks ago, that basically asked, where are the mental health services at schools? And in my mind, we basically don’t have them, because the social workers, school counselors, school psychologists, everybody is spread way too thin. Do you know a social worker that can tell a kid every Tuesday morning at 9 o’clock I’m going to see you? It’s impossible. Social workers typically have multiple schools. So once we really decide to put the focus on children and their mental and emotional health, I think that we actually could really do a lot to improve things.

[] You mentioned that schools do have the legal right to intervene when cyberbullying that occurs at home affects learning at school. Are there any other legal considerations that school social workers, administrators, and counselors have to be cognizant of as they are planning or intervening in cases of cyberbullying?

[Dr. Poland] In many ways this is sort of new territory. I know that there are a number of excellent books that have been written about trying to get schools more in tuned to cyberbullying. And I think part of the problem goes back to what I said earlier, in terms of too many kids, not enough resources, not enough time. So often, the school is kind of aware that something is happening, but it just does not get into it. Maybe a kid’s mom calls the school and says that this is happening, but sometimes they wait until they are forced to do something. But the best strategy would be to investigate now; let’s talk to the kid that we believe is being victimized. In my mind, we can’t really tell if it’s bullying until we talk to the recipient, and that means we have to take the time to do it. We need to find out from them, were they feeling humiliated, did somebody else have all the power, were there witnesses to what was happening, and if so let’s talk to them. We can pretty quickly dismiss something and say oh that was really nothing, but if we didn’t really talk to the kid, it might have really been something to them.

There have recently been some cyberbullying cases that got national attention. For example, the young woman in Polk County, Florida who jumped off a concrete tower last fall. The county sheriff arrested the two kids who were the biggest bullies. Unfortunately, the sheriff was trying to do something and I applaud it, but we don’t really have laws that are going to let the sheriff really provide any consequences. However, increased public awareness about the destructive impact of cyberbullying and the cases that some parents of cyberbullied kids have brought to the courts, will hopefully result in people taking this issue a little more seriously. Somehow out of all of this, we have to have a kinder society, and one where everybody gets involved and stops these things early.

Thank you Dr. Scott Poland for your time and insight into the psychological, social, emotional, and physical effects of bullying and cyberbullying.