Getting to grips with Cyberbullying
Written by Ruth McGuire - 21st November 2021
As adults, parents, or carers, many if not most of us will have memories of at least one school bully who either directly caused us harm or was known to hurt others. Quite often, the bully had a set of ‘accomplices’ or co-conspirators who worked with the bully to terrorise others and cause havoc in or out of school or both. In good schools, bullies would be tackled by good teachers, and in some cases, expelled or suspended because of their bad behaviour. Nowadays, the ‘techno’ version of the old-fashioned bully is much more difficult to identify and challenge. This is because the ‘cyberbully’ inhabits a different physical space from the ‘traditional’ bully – they live in cyberspace, hence the term ‘cyberbully.’
So, what exactly is cyberbullying? It is basically a form of bullying that takes place through the medium of technology. Cyberbullies use tangible equipment such as computers, tablets, and mobile devices as well as websites, social media, emails, and other computerised devices to bully their victims and to cause them harm or distress. The other distinctive features of the cyberbully are 1) they often use fake identities and use the anonymity offered by technology to target their victims with the ‘security’ of knowing they cannot be easily identified and 2) cyberbullies can access their victims at all times and send and post vile bullying messages at any time of day and from anywhere in the world.
According to the NSPCC, cyberbullying behaviour can include but is not limited to the following:
- Sending threatening or abusive text messages
- Creating and sharing embarrassing images or videos
- Trolling i.e., sending menacing or upsetting messages on social networks, chat rooms or online games
- Sending false, negative or harmful messages about someone to cause embarrassment
- Shaming someone online
- Encouraging young people to self-harm
- Pressuring children into sending sexual images/engaging in sexual conversations
In the US, researchers from the Cyberbully Research centre have found that certain children/people are more likely to be bullied in cyberspace. These include those who are struggling ‘academically, emotionally, psychologically, and even behaviourally.’
The vulnerability of children to cyberbullying is clearly linked to the extent to which they use communication technologies. The more children rely on mobile phones, social media, computers/tablets and even online gaming for communicating with others, the more risk this creates for their safety. However, computers, tablets and social media are here to stay, they are an integral part of our everyday lives. As a direct consequence of the pandemic, our reliance on computers for study, work and just to maintain contact with families has increased. The solution is therefore not for parents/carers to ban children from using computers and mobile phones but to educate them about staying safe when going online. However, to educate their children, parents/carers need to be confident that they are themselves aware of the dangers of online safety issues that affect children.
Symptoms that a child or young person is a victim of cyberbullying are often the same as symptoms of the more ‘traditional’ forms of bullying. These include a child displaying uncharacteristic levels of anxiety, self-harming, low moods and isolating themselves from others. In addition, children who are being targeted ‘online’ may become visibly upset after using a computer, tablet or their mobile phone or may show signs of fear when logging onto their computer or phone.
- Reinforce and remind children of the difference between the real world and the virtual world, the world that only exists in cyberspace. Help children to recognise the difference between real, identifiable people and ‘people’ who only exist via the computer and whose identities could be fake
- Protect their identities. It is important for children to learn how to protect their identities by never giving their personal details such as name, age, address, mobile number or any information that makes them ‘identifiable’ to anyone without their parents’ or carers’ permission
- Stranger danger. Children are usually taught to be aware of ‘stranger danger’ and the risks posed by strangers who in the real world may try to befriend them or lure them into risky or dangerous activity. The same caution applies to children’s use of online tools. They need to be taught that cyber ‘stranger danger’ is even more of a risk because of the fake identities people can create for themselves
- ‘Block the bully.’ Bullies of any type thrive on the attention they receive from victims and from knowing that they cause fear. If the cyberbully is blocked by their intended victim, this diminishes their power. Most, if not all, social media and other online communication devices including mobile phones, offer a facility to ‘block’ messages from certain telephone numbers or contacts
- Ensure children know their legal rights – this includes their right to be safe whether they are using computers or not
- Report bullying and abuse to internet providers, social media companies, website creates and so on. Social Media companies may have options that allow users to report bullying. For example, Facebook has a menu option on ‘how to report abuse’ and also a section on ‘help prevent bullying’ with guidance for teenagers and separate guidance for parents/carers. Similarly, Instagram has a section for users to report a post or profile in relation to bullying and harassment
- Support children to record and report harassment and bullying – take screenshots or download evidence of bullying and contact the social media/internet/website provider
- Report the bullying to school if a child/young person believes the bully is linked to school
- In extreme cases where bullying is linked to characteristics such as gender, religion, ethnicity or has sexual connotations or if the bullying is extremely threatening, contact the police
- Support a child to engage in non-computer related activities that allows them to socialise with their peers in physical safe places and spaces or to volunteer to help others
- Be alert to the impact of the bullying on a child’s mental health and seek appropriate help from a GP, mental health specialists or professionals or charities such as YoungMinds that specialise in supporting the mental health of children/young people
Further reading/learning and advice
See CACHE E-safety module:
Ruth McGuire is an Education Inspector with nearly 15 years of inspection experience. She has taught in both further and higher education. She is also a well-established education and training consultant, writer and freelance journalist. She is a Governor of an outstanding sixth form college and also holds board roles within the NHS.