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The Changing Climate of CyberBullying in Irish Primary Schools

In nearly a decade of being a principal, I have experienced many changes within the milieu of our primary schools. A smattering of such change includes new curricula, teaching methodologies, learning initiatives, building regulations, data protection and finance laws. These changes sit alongside the fluctuating guises of the profession, which Frank McCourt aptly describes as ‘a drill sergeant, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counsellor, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, the last straw’.

Unfortunately, resolute and unfaltering among such change, remains the issue of bullying – which we can say remains unchanged with respect to hostile intent, the imbalance of power and the repetition of such behaviour. The craving of control is a feature of this behaviour too and explains an enduring presence in all aspects of society.

However, with respect to our primary schools and societal structures, the greatest change I have seen, in a decade, is the nature by which hostile intent, an imbalance of power and the hurtful craving of control are exercised. Our technology, which can be so beneficial, also accommodates and embraces the most insidious bullying behaviour.

Compared to concepts of ‘traditional’ bullying, which were localised to the school yard, playground or neighbourhood, the ‘on-screen’ environment is a place where bullying has an instantaneous and accessible audience, an extensive audience and a degree of permanence (we would be far more careful if what we spoke appeared on our skin or in a leaflet posted to every household every week).  In addition, much vaunted privacy settings do not always quell the public and permanent nature of our posts.

Yet perhaps most worrying of all – is that this is not an issue that commences in our primary schools. Every principal that I know has banned mobile phones from the school (we don’t need it in schools (we have teachers!) and if we need to talk to your parents or mediate after-school arrangements we have our own ‘in-house’ technology – the landline). Instead, it is the aftermath and aftershocks that play out in school. Young people who are fortified by unfettered access and bravado write and post insults, images, slurs and slights – which become real once absorbed by a target and personified the next morning in class.

If there is unrestricted or unsupervised access to technology; phone, tablet or games console, the perception that your child is at home, safely ensconced, perhaps upstairs in bed, quiet and unobtrusive, and so safe, is a grand fallacy. It is no different to not knowing which street your child is on, in which city, at what time, much less who he or she might to talking to or what he or she may be posting. It is dangerous too, for what our children may read about themselves.

This is a reality I have experienced in school, in dealing with the aftermath of postings. My experience is invariably noted by the anxiety, anger, apprehension, frustration and misery of both our pupils and parents – all accommodated and enabled by the misuse of SnapChat, Fortnite, Fifa, Whats App, Musical-ly, YouTube and any other addition or latest fad in the plethora of social networking apps and multi-player games.

However, when we can only warn of misusing technology, the question remains as to what we can do to protect against behaviour that permits bullying. Naturally, primary schools operate within the context of a wider social structure and as I have alluded to, bullying behaviour (hostile intent, the imbalance of power and repetition of this behaviour) did not arrive with technology. What has changed is how this behaviour is exercised, to devastating effect (instant, extensive and permanent).

But this is not a reflection to simply say ‘don’t respond or retaliate, save the evidence and reach out for help’. It is a plea and an appeal to realise how devastating and destructive this technology can be. Much like misusing a car – and we are so well warned to drive carefully and responsibly - and to our government who have launched effective campaigns indicating the import of road safety - we must accord technology the same respect. Schools are already undertaking to do this. We must respect the technology we give our young people to enjoy. We need to supervise, observe, regulate and restrict it on occasions (unpopular, but a good parent can’t be popular all the time. I’m probably the fourth most popular person in my house on a good day). These are direct actions that will take different forms in different households - the ‘tech-bowl’ in the cereal press is but one example.

But let’s be pre-emptive too, it doesn’t have to be reactive. SnapChat, Fortnite, Fifa, Whats App, Musical-ly, YouTube, etc. haven’t set out to enable bullying behaviour. That’s on us. From the earliest age, we need to continue to promote respect, empathy, friendship, understanding and sympathy. These tenets are in the ethos of every school (and these tenets can be realised through project work, group work, yard time, all subjects and sport - throughout the day, and arguably more effective than direct teaching). That’s what we did before technology and what we will continue to do as schools.

The tenets of respect, empathy, friendship, understanding and sympathy are in our parents too. And while we need to know the ‘on-screen’ world of our young people, respect, empathy, understanding, sympathy is what we endeavour to engender in our society and should aspire to, absolutely, in our children. 

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About the author

Barry O'Leary (Guest Blogger)

Dr. Barry O’ Leary is a graduate of UCD, Hibernia College and Trinity College Dublin, and has been the principal of two DEIS Band 1 Urban primary schools in Dublin. A published author, lecturer and research supervisor, Barry has spent his career to date in DEIS schools.  

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