Second Step® Insights

Preventing Cyberbullying: The Social-Emotional Learning Connection

April 10, 2024 | By: The Second Step® Team

Students in a classroom.

While “old school” bullying on the playground still happens, now with modern technology, cyberbullying is a growing threat to children in and out of school. The latest statistics show 10 to 40 percent of kids report being cyberbullied and one in six admit to being the perpetrator. Cyberbullying can lead to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, poor school performance and delinquency.

Middle and high school leaders report cyberbullying problems impact about 20 percent of their students weekly. Defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices,” cyberbullying’s prevalence among schoolkids is not surprising given students’ online access. Ninety-five percent of US highschoolers have a smartphone, and almost 50 percent of teens say they’re online “nearly constantly.”

While the statistics about cyberbullying may seem daunting, studies on prevention and intervention efforts offer hope. Research shows that social-emotional learning (SEL) can help create a more positive school climate, provide protective factors against cyberbullying, and help students develop a variety of social-emotional skills that may inhibit cyberbullying behaviors.

Fostering positive school climates
Social-emotional learning curricula implemented schoolwide fosters a positive school climate, and school climate, in turn, is a powerful factor in preventing bullying.

School leaders can foster a positive school climate by:

  • Building strong relationships between educators and students, and between student peers
  • Establishing schoolwide norms of compassion and respecting differences
  • Creating a system of confidential reporting

SEL in action: Adrian’s school works to make sure everyone feels like they belong. Diverse cultures and backgrounds are celebrated throughout the school year. His teachers intentionally work to build connections with each student, so everyone feels seen and heard. Adrian knows he is safe to be himself at school.

Providing protective factors
SEL helps children develop self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and other skills that offer protective factors.

Just as cyberbullies can post harmful messages without thinking, impulsive responses from bullying targets can escalate the situation, too. SEL helps students identify and regulate their emotions, so they can pause to figure out the best course of action to protect themselves and others.

Additionally, studies show that bystanders can play an important role in reducing bullying behavior. Social-emotional skills like empathy and perspective-taking can empower bystanders to intervene in cyberbullying. Witnesses can move from bystander to ally, reporting the online content and offering support to the victim.

SEL in action: After seeing a classmate’s hurtful post directed at her on social media, Chris starts to fire off a cutting reply. But instead of responding impulsively or internalizing the negativity, she reaches out to a trusted adult for advice. Her ability to manage her emotions effectively prevents the situation from escalating.

Meanwhile, Chris’s friend Tina is scrolling social media and sees the post too. She reaches out to Chris privately to provide support and offers to report the abusive content to the platform. As a good cyberbully bystander, Tina not only calls out the cyberbullying but also empowers Chris to take action.

Parent involvement

Parents play a vital role in reinforcing SEL principles and modeling positive behaviors related to cyberbullying prevention. It’s important that parents:

  • Set rules and expectations about digital citizenship and online behaviors, especially around writing and sharing messages and images.
  • Keep the parent/child communication lines open so kids feel safe coming to adults for support if they’re victims or bystanders of cyberbullying.
  • Encourage kids to practice good decision-making and empathy in and out of school.

Want more information about how to support high schoolers and help prevent cyberbullying?

Explore our new program, Second Step® High School.

Read the award-winning Captain Compassion® anti-bullying webcomics from Committee for Children.

Learn more with our free resources for families and educators.