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Cellphone videos of school fights prolong conflicts, experts say

Seeing a video of your attack can be retraumatizing, one expert in cyberbullying says

By: Kate Dubinski · CBC News · Posted: Oct 29, 2019

In one video, two boys are chest to chest, not breaking eye contact, locked in a pre-fight side-step until one throws a punch. 

In another video, a girl is punched in the side of the head, then the attacker is on top of her, pulling her long hair. 

In many of the school fight videos that see the light of day, there are other teens standing around, egging the fight on or standing back and watching. 

Videos of school fights make the rounds for days after the initial confrontation, making it difficult for teachers and administrators to help students move past the original conflict and retraumatizing victims, bullying experts say. 

“Social media prolongs the incident. It doesn’t allow us to end it, because the two parties may have found some resolution, but there’s always discussions happening on social media that keeps the fire going,” said Christine Giannacopolous, the principal at Montcalm Secondary School and an educator since the 1990s. 

“It really does take a lot for the student support team to build trust with the students and to say, ‘If things continue, you need to let us know, because you’ve done the right thing and resolved it and we don’t want to keep it going.’ It does usually end, it takes longer now with social media.” 

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The presence of people watching a fight can be physiologically arousing for the people involved, and the additional videos being taken can heighten that response, said Claire Crooks, a psychologist who teaches at Western University’s faculty of education and the director of Western’s Centre for School Mental Health. 

“People don’t feel a sense of personal responsibility when they’re in a crowd like that, and now you add people holding their phones and it’s one more step removed,” Crooks said. “You’re an audience. It has a disinhibiting effect, and it might stop you from going to get help or getting an adult.” 

‘Part of the zeitgeist’

Lead-ups to school fights are often done online, with messages bouncing back and forth between kids, and then there’s comments on the fight videos themselves.

“Afterwards, it’s very much a form of cyberbullying, because you’re keeping it alive. You’re involved in an assault at school, and then it goes viral and it makes the rounds, and it can give it new life. It’s awful for youth and their family.”

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Videos and social media are not going anywhere, said Jenna Shapka, a developmental psychologist from the University of British Columbia. 

“It’s part of the zeitgeist, it’s part of the times we’re living in,” she said.

“We’re so into documenting everything, and we have our phones at the ready. Because it’s on video, it can be really retraumatizing. It’s a cycle. You thought it was gone, and you thought you were over it, and then it pops up a year later.”

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