Dr. Rona Novick
Klal Perspectives, Technology
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Cyber Bullying in the Jewish Community
An eighth grade girl checks her phone on motzaei Shabbos and finds a group text message to her entire class encouraging her classmates to boycott her party on Sunday because “her idea of fun is totally lame and babyish.”
A fifteen year old Yeshiva student has established a fund raising website for a chesed project. An anonymous post on the page has a doctored picture of him in an embarrassing position with the caption, “Wouldn’t you run a marathon to avoid this guy?”
After she spoke up in a school program about social relationships in her grade, Chana was de-friended by ten girls in her grade on various social media sites. Her emails to peers about homework are bouncing back unread and she has received voice messages from unknown phone numbers referring to her as a “rat” and a “slut.”
These are examples of the new face of bullying. Bullying, the abuse of power to cause harm to another, is not a new phenomenon; in fact, the Torah community has never been immune to bullying, whether in schools, camps or in the community. Research I conducted in Jewish day schools found rates of bullying in grades 6-8 remarkably similar to those found in the general US population. Jewish values and the observance of the mitzvoth of bein adam l’chavero (interpersonal) and lashon hara (negative speech) notwithstanding, bullying happens in Jewish schools and communities. With the current widespread use of communication technology and social media, cyber bullying amongst children and teens has emerged as a new and virulent strain of a dangerous problem. In the Orthodox community, where there is a clear appreciation for the numerous challenges posed by computer use and the Internet, parents and schools must broaden their understanding of the technological connections accessible to children and teens via the various available devices, and the implications of such access.
What Is Cyber Bullying?
Originally, cyber bullying referred to harmful actions and communications via computer, including email and social media sites. The vast majority of Internet activity by teens is now on devices such as smart phones, tablets and gaming consoles, and so the definition and dimensions of cyber bullying have widened. In fact, a 2015 study by the Pew Group found that more than 75% of teens have smartphones, underscoring the proliferation of highly accessible devices for perpetrating cyber bullying.
Cyber bullying is currently understood as not specific to a particular technology, but rather any bullying that takes place using electronic technology. This can include sending mean text messages or emails, spreading rumors by email or on social networking sites, and posting or disseminating embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or imposing fabricated profiles.
Coupled with the statistics above, which indicate the broad accessibility of internet access and the fact that studies of teenage internet usage are obsolete the moment they are published, it is not surprising that exact information on the rates of cyber bullying is hard to find. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey found 15% of high school students were electronically bullied that year. Two years earlier, the National Center for Education Statistics found 9% of students in grades 6-12 experienced cyber bullying. Though there is no research to confirm that similar levels occur in Yeshiva settings, there is also no compelling reason to believe that they are immune.
Cyber Bullying Is Different than Traditional Bullying
How is cyber bullying qualitatively different from conventional bullying? What are their similarities and differences, and do these distinctions impact how they should be addressed? Moreover, are there issues particularly germane to the Orthodox population that require special consideration?
The significant research on traditional, face-to-face bullying identifies an imbalance of power as a critical component. Technology exacerbates this potential imbalance since the very nature of technological communication empowers potential bullies and renders victims powerless. This enhanced power is derived, in part, from the anonymity that cyber communication offers. When sending toxic messages to peers, an otherwise reticent teen can hide behind false screen names or adopt an alternate identity. Psychological research documents the powerful disinhibiting factor of anonymity, with individuals engaging in acts of cruelty that they would never do if their identities were known. This is a factor in the often-vicious behavior of on-line bullies, and contributes to the devastating consequences such behavior can have on victims.
Also different from traditional bullying is the reach and permanence of cyber bullying. Whereas a schoolyard taunt can be heard by a few nearby peers, a post on social media can quickly spread to dozens, if not hundreds of viewers. Unlike the spoken word, which may be forgotten, technological memories are timeless. Hence, cyber bullying follows its victims, transcending the boundaries of time and place to inflict seemingly endless pain. The words of Rav Pam’s introduction to the 1998 Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation program on onaat devarim (hurtful speech) appear prescient: “Certainly everyone should understand the imperative to be extremely careful in avoiding words that inflict wounds that perhaps will never heal, or may linger on for a long, long time.”
Despite their differences, perpetration of, and victimization by, cyber bullying and traditional bullying often overlap. Most cyber bullies engage in bullying behavior in person as well and most victims of cyber bullying are also victimized in live situations. Unfortunately, there is less overlap between the available solutions.
Successful traditional bullying interventions usually involve bystanders in pro-social acts of supporting victims and derailing bullies through distraction, humor and compassionate confrontation. Employing these techniques in response to cyber bullying, by contrast, is challenging in multiple ways. The same anonymity that facilitates cyber bullying makes it easier for those witnessing it to hide behind their screens. Recent research at the University of Texas found that the invisibility that online witnesses experience decreases their adherence to societal norms. There is reason to believe that for observant Jewish teens, this invisibility may also enable behavior inconsistent with religious norms and precepts. The same research found that the greater the number of witnesses, the less likely anyone is to intervene. Familiarity and friendship with the victim was the only factor found to actually increase online bystander intervention.
The Impact of Cyber Bullying
That cyber bullying imposes deep scars is clear. High profile cases in the secular world have documented the connection between victimization and depression and suicide. Victims experience no respite from the pain or torment, report intense alienation, and are more likely than their peers to avoid school, suffer from decreased self-esteem and turn to alcohol or drugs. While no statistics on these phenomena exist regarding the Jewish community, practical factors may well cause the devastating impact of cyber bullying to be equal to, or greater, in the Orthodox community. I receive multiple calls each week from day schools, families, and mental health professionals, struggling with bullying and cyber bullying. Not infrequently, bullying and cyber bullying often compel victims to alter their social sphere, and occasionally even warrant the extreme measure of changing schools. Unlike children in the general population, however, children of observant homes have neither an unlimited choice of schools, nor ready access to alternate socialization venues. When an Orthodox child is humiliated within his or her social group, they often have no place to turn since that very same social group will frequently be identical to or overlap social groups in their camps, shuls and extracurricular venues. While this is true in smaller Jewish communities, it is also a problem in larger metropolitan areas with substantial Jewish populations.
Responding to Cyber Bullying
How should the Orthodox community better address the threat of cyber bullying, particularly since it can occur anywhere and at anytime, and can leave its permanent mark on our children, families and schools? This is particularly challenging since the leaders of our communities and institutions, like most parents who struggle to help their children, are adults who tend to be Internet novices, or “cyber immigrants.” By contrast, of course, perpetrators of cyber bullying are typically children and teens who are extremely knowledgeable and comfortable with the “tools of their trade” – certainly far more so than we will ever be.
Rather than cede the technological universe to the next generation, however, parents and community leadership (or their designees) need to up their game and increase their familiarity with the cyber world in order to properly supervise what goes on there.
There is significant evidence that parents and educators typically underestimate the prevalence of cyber bullying, and so it is particularly important that we to take seriously our children’s and students’ reports of misbehavior in the cyber world. Moreover, unlike the circumstances of a physical or verbal assault, which tend to be fairly straightforward, cyber bullying is often a function of a range of technological interactions that few adults would even understand. Absent some initiation to the technologically dependent social environment of today’s youth, the true meaning of an email or text message may be ambiguous or easily misunderstood. For example, without the background information and context, one student “de-friending” another, or blocking someone on a website, may seem innocent. But such actions may be vindictive and devastating.
It is also critical that children be made comfortable sharing information with adults, and that they can be confident that the response will be reasonable. Children should also be taught to save all evidence, notwithstanding the natural temptation to hit the delete button when confronting an offensive message. Such evidence is often the only means to confront and stop cyber offenders. Caution, however, is warranted before considering any confrontation. An important rule of thumb is to consider the after-effects. Will your actions make the victimized child safer, or might you be putting the child at increased risk?
If we are to control this phenomenon in our communities, it is critical for schools and parents to develop, disseminate, teach and enforce clear expectations and policies for cyber behavior. These must be consistent with Torah understandings of v’ahavta l’reyach kmocha (love your fellow as yourself), AND cognizant of the psychological realities of disinhibition that occur in technological communications. Parents, educators and Torah leaders need to know enough about the technology to set these expectations. And because technology is constantly evolving, they can never become complacent. Chances are that as much as adults know, children and teens know more, and so we must invite our children to serve as our teachers.
An equally critical role for adults in addressing cyber bullying is supervision. Despite their superior knowledge about technology, children’s and teens’ understanding of the world and of human nature lags behind that of adults. Very intelligent middle- and high-school students have incorrectly assumed that simply because access to a site is password protected, or because they only shared an item “in their network,” no unwanted viewers would ever see it. I have heard equally bright students maintain that since they deleted a post from their phone or web based site, there is no further evidence of its existence.
Perhaps most disconcerting is the frequent willingness of children and teens to believe that people whom they encounter on the Internet are who they say they are. This expectation can result in inappropriate relationships and even agreements to meet in person with characters who troll cyberspace for just such naïveté. Adults, even those who are cyber novices, usually recognize these various errors of judgment.
Often, adults are uncomfortable ramping up their supervision of youngsters’ cyber lives, feeling it is an invasion of privacy or a compromise of their relationship. Both adults and children, however, need to understand that there is no true privacy in the technological realm, and therefore there is no right to demand privacy from those who love and wish to protect them. What teens share in cyber space, which is or may become public, needs to be shared with caring adults, as well. Inevitably, teens will protest. They would be incorrect in arguing that a parent’s access to their internet postings is tantamount to reading their private diary, or listening in on their phone conversations. If such supervision appears intrusive, if teens complain that their privacy is being invaded, parents should take comfort in the fact that through this supervision our children are also being taught that their cyber footprint is both public and permanent; and that their parents care. It is an opportunity to teach our children that we live our lives as Torah Jews, both in person and on line, when we are known and when we are anonymous.
By engaging with children both about and within the cyber world, adults have the opportunity to not only address bullying and other cyber threats with children, but also to demonstrate the positive power of technology. The developments in cyber space allow us to be informed and stay connected. Children can be taught that it is improper to stand idly by the suffering of others, whether they are physically present, or connected in cyber space. Children can be taught to recognize the power of our actions and especially of our words. Consider the scenarios at the start of this article. Imagine if a classmate of the eighth grader accused of “lame, babyish parties,” rather than further sharing the post, sent the alternate message “let’s find ways to celebrate together.” What a powerful statement it would make if, in response to the doctored picture of our chessed runner, four peers agree to join the race and run with him. If the girls in Chana’s grades checked their phones and tablets to find a message from three girls urging them to stop their name-calling and end the animosity towards her, they would discover the positive power of the group.
Chazal in Sefer Hakanah tell us that with each word we utter a fragment of our neshama is released into the world. Our words, whether in person or on-line, are what the Chafetz Chaim refers to as our Divine spark. When we help shape our children’s cyber personae – the words, pictures, and actions they share through technology – we teach them to give chizuk (strength), to express care, and to become avdei Hashem (servants of G-d). We may be teaching these lessons in modern times, with modern challenges, but as we do so, we fulfill an ancient and timeless vision for klal Yisrael.
Dr. Rona Novick is the Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University, researches bully prevention and is a clinical psychologist.
 Paper on Bully Prevention in Jewish Schools presented at Nefesh Association of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals National Conference, Norfolk, Virginia, 2002.
 The Pew Teens, Social Media and Technology Overview, 2015. See http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/
 There is no research to date on the rates of use in yeshivot and day schools. However, given research on the relationship between afluence and usage, and given the relatively high socio-economic status of yeshiva day school families, it is reasonable to assume the rates are similar.
 See http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/