‘It’s up to you': SBE graduates change the way schools talk with children about cyberbullying

Teaching children a moral code when it comes to their behaviour and treatment of others online is a challenge for teachers who don’t have experience with social media or understand young people’s usage of it, which in turn can lead to ineffective approaches to discussing the issue of cyberbullying in schools.

This was the discovery of SBE graduate Joerie Nijhuis who, together with fellow SBE graduate Tom Peeters, developed the online educational programme ‘It’s up to you’, which is aimed at helping children between the ages of 12 and 15 to have a dialogue about the choices they make and the resulting consequences regarding their online behaviour and to learn from each other about what is morally acceptable.

Now implemented in 3,000 schools in the Netherlands, it’s resonating well with students and teachers alike. Its effectiveness is also supported by the Dutch government; the Dutch Youth Institute has evaluated the programme and has labeled it as theoretically sound. Joerie spoke with Talkin’ Business about what inspired him to create the programme, how it works and how he went about bringing it from concept to an educational classroom package.

What are the origins of ‘It’s up to you’?
It started in the beginning of 2011. I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree in communication and multimedia design and working on my graduation project. I wanted to focus on something special that is socially relevant, has an impact and uses, in some way or form, media to achieve it. At that time, cyberbullying was all over the news. It was clear that schools were having trouble trying dealing with the issue. First of all, some teachers had trouble understanding how social media even worked, and partly as a result of that they struggled to talk about it with their students on how to use it, what is socially acceptable and what is not. Utilizing interactive media to help schools address this issue formed the basis for my graduation project.

What were some issues you saw with how cyberbullying was being addressed in schools?
One problem I noticed was that teachers were having trouble educating students on this topic because their approach was top-down. They were telling youngsters what they should and shouldn’t do. So instead of trying to open up a conversation about it directly with the students themselves, they were telling them what to do, rule by rule by rule.

It didn’t really resonate with the students or their own social environment, so I asked myself: Can we create a situation where instead of telling youngsters what to do and how to behave, we can let them learn from each other, let them talk about their own experiences and decide as a group what they think is morally acceptable? That was the basis of ‘It’s up to you’.

How exactly does the programme work?
It’s an interactive film against cyberbullying. There’s a main character who is confronted with cyberbullying situations and youngsters can actively choose what he or she does in each case. For example, there’s a discriminating message posted on Facebook, and the students can decide how they would respond: either liking the message, doing nothing, or responding to it negatively. They immediately see the consequences of their actions and influence the story as they watch it unfold. So in essence we created a safe platform where kids can actually experiment with different choices and make their own decisions based on that.

Everybody watches the movie individually twice and are encouraged to try different options. That way they are not being pushed to do what they ‘should’ do. Most kids are smart enough to respond with the most socially acceptable answer, but we want to really encourage them to experiment. By doing that, every child gets a different experience and a different ending to the story.

There are 72 different scenarios you can go through and 22 different possible endings. After they watch it twice, they go back to the classroom and start the discussion. The teacher, who facilitates the discussion, asks them about what they saw, what choices they made and what consequences they encountered. The children talk with each other about what they think is morally acceptable, and end the discussion by creating their own classroom rules, as a group effort.

How did you go about bringing the programme from a school project to something that is implemented in more than 3,000 schools?
I made a prototype that took about half a year, but once I started by master’s at Maastricht University I started thinking that it would be great to have the programme actually fully developed and launched for schools. Tom, a good friend of mine studying at Maastricht as well, also recognised the project’s potential and wanted to be a part of realising it. We both wanted to create a genuine positive social impact, and decided to try and get partners and write a subsidy request. After four months’ work, we weren’t hopeful, but found out to our surprise that we were one of four of the projects chosen out of 44 applications. We celebrated for three hours before realizing we had a lot of work to do. We had to shoot the film, create the platform, educate teachers and ensure that distribution would be as simple as possible. During the whole journey, we worked at least 20-30 hours on this project, on top of our studies and work.

We launched it 19 April 2013, which is the official day against bullying. Since then, the usage is incredible. It’s been implemented in more than 3,000 schools in the Netherlands, and is used in 10-15 school classes daily on average.

Overall, do you think social media does more harm than good for young people in particular?
In general, I think social media has a lot of advantages. At the same time, it’s also true that with more access and opportunities come more chances that something can go wrong. In that sense, parents and teachers are wary. What you generally see is teachers and parents trying to restrict social media usage, such as blocking their children from Facebook and monitoring them closely. But in the end these approaches don’t really work, and can even have counterproductive results. What is proven from research is that it works well to have open conversations with children. Show interest in what they are doing and try to imagine what the world is like for them. You are likely to be surprised by what you find out in having these discussions and what children are willing to share. This is key if you want to engage in meaningful conversations on both the positive as well as the negative aspects of social media.

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