By Martin Oliver
Cyberbullying is growing worse fast. If it is happening to someone close to you, it’s time to unplug the perpetrators.
Cyberbullying, the act of bullying via an electronic medium, is now affecting children in their pre-teen years, becoming more prevalent as they move into their teens. Roughly one in five Australian children aged between eight and fifteen have been impacted, and its incidence is increasing worldwide in parallel with the penetration of technology.
This type of bullying usually involves abusive and hurtful communications extending to nasty gossip, being humiliated, and exclusion from a group. In some cases, private information can be disclosed online. It can also involve creating a fake social media profile, or the bullies getting into a real social media account in order to change information. Here, the keys to defence are good password strength and keeping passwords completely secret.
Australia is one of the world’s most connected countries, and this trend is particularly true for teenagers. Recent figures indicate that 82 per cent of Australian teens will have been online within the past four weeks, and 80 per cent have a smartphone.
Recently, this age group has shown signs of moving away from social media platforms such as Facebook in favour of Instagram and messaging platforms such as Messenger and Snapchat. Other media through which cyberbullying occurs include online chatrooms, email, and text. Websites where users can ask anonymous questions such as Ask.fm are a particular worry, as they have been linked to several teen suicides.
‘One of the most disconcerting aspects of cyberbullying is the irrationality of mob behaviour… a noxious form of bullying with long lasting, highly damaging repercussions’
Among teenagers, bullying tends to be dominance behaviour with the motivation being to gain power and status. Bullies are narcissists. In the school environment, a Canadian study has found that bullies are more likely to be the ‘cool’ kids with high self-esteem, and their victims tend to be the ‘uncool’ ones.
Similar to offline bullying, cyberbullying frequently involves a group ganging up to collectively attack one individual because of some perceived difference. The targeted individual becomes an outcast, a victim of ostracism. One of the most disconcerting aspects of it is the irrationality of mob behaviour. It would be accurate to describe this behaviour as mob bullying, which is a well-documented noxious form of bullying with long lasting, highly damaging repercussions.
Unlike the traditional form, cyberbullying is more problematic because through being connected to devices much of the time children do not leave it behind when they arrive home. Teen cyberbullying is usually coupled with bullying at school, and victims may feel that there is no let-up. The electronic medium also tends to multiply the effects and the consequential emotional impact. Nude pictures sent to the wrong recipient can go viral and be shared across a large audience. There seems to be little understanding that this is illegal if the person is under 18.
While adults are inclined to point the finger at teenagers, maybe they should do some soul-searching and consider their own behaviours. A culture of bullying, which can include cyberbullying and mob bullying, is widespread in workplaces.
Many of us sit glued to reality TV shows where the participants are humiliated and degraded. Discourse in the media, online and in the political arena is becoming more nasty, intolerant and extreme, with a trend towards sexist and racist comments. In Australia, hate speech laws cover religious beliefs but exclude philosophical beliefs, and some newspapers that denounce teen cyberbullying are engaged in aggressive vilification of groups and causes that they or their owners dislike. All of these bad examples in turn tend to normalise such behaviour in the eyes of impressionable young people.
Being bullied may leave a victim feeling guilty, hopeless, alone, depressed, or unsafe. It can cause major emotional distress, and in extreme cases this has led to suicide. Common physical symptoms include headaches, stomach disturbances, and insomnia.
Unlike the offline world, digital communication facilitates anonymity, which is in turn desensitising. A cyberbully can hide behind a fake profile or send anonymous messages.
Confronting potential future cyberbullies with the personal impacts of these actions is powerful, as it is easy to be insulated from the pain that it causes. In Victoria, Michael Cleland, whose daughter committed suicide after cyberbullying, held a moving presentation on this topic at a Melbourne girls’ college.
How to stop the bullies
‘Create a judgement-free environment in which your children feel safe to talk about all manner of issues that arise in their lives’
For somebody on the receiving end of cyberbullying, there are several suggestions for handling the situation. These are:
- Block the bully.
- Unfriend people doing the bullying.
- Talk to a supportive adult, the Kids Helpline (ages 5-25), or contact eheadspace online (12-25.)
- Change privacy settings.
- Don’t respond, other than to consider the option of just once assertively asking bullies to stop. With each incident, don’t repeat this request as it conveys desperation, and can encourage bullies by feeding their motivation.
- Report offensive material to the site, messaging service or email provider.
- If it persists, collect evidence in the form of screenshots, printed emails, and printed social network conversations. Then consider deleting the original electronic material.
- A more extreme response would be to deactivate or shut down a social media account, but bear in mind that Twitter deletes deactivated accounts after only thirty days.
When a friend is being cyberbullied:
- Avoid sharing negative posts, images and videos.
- Leave negative groups and conversations.
- Report the bullying to someone, and this could involve an anonymous report to a parent or teacher.
- If you feel confident, call for the bullying to stop.
- Support the friend online and offline.
Young people who are being cyberbullied are often reluctant to share this with their parents. While signs are not always evident, indicators include being withdrawn, behaviour changes, secrecy, and having a decreased appetite. It is good to create a judgement-free environment in which your children feel safe to talk about all manner of issues, from major to minor, that arise in their lives
Tips for parents include:
- Listen to their story, and take it seriously.
- Acknowledge and validate their feelings.
- Look at gathering evidence.
- Get the school involved to observe student behaviour and create strategies to stop bullying in the school environment.
- Avoid simplistic solutions such as believing that if the child stops his or her technology use the problem will go away. Many children believe digital media to be their social lifeline and, contrary to the assumptions of some parents, the Off button is not a simple solution.
An indication that your child may be a cyberbully includes secretive behaviour and a shift towards more obsessive Internet use patterns.
In addition to prevention, in the form of inculcating respectful values, an assertive and firm strategy with the child tends to work best. Ensuring that the child takes down abusive social media pages is a minimum first step.
Another option is to take matters further by approaching the authorities, in the form of the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner. Under Commonwealth legislation passed in 2004, menacing, harassing and offensive behaviours through a ‘carriage service’, such as phones and digital avenues, is considered a crime. Logging into someone else’s online account without their permission is another criminal offence. Where a request has been made to a social media site to remove the worst cyberbullying material and 48 hours later it is still up, the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner also works with social media sites to remove it.
Resources – Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner – www.esafety.gov.au
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).