What is cyberbullying?
Conflicts between children and young people are a normal part of growing up. Because of this, adults may mistake bullying and/or cyberbullying for normal childhood conflict when in fact they are a lot more serious and potentially very harmful. Cyberbullying is complex and may include:
- posting and sharing nasty, angry or rude messages, known as harassment.
- cyber stalking, which is repeated harassment usually containing threatening messages with the aim to intimidate and create fear.
- sending personal information about others that has been shared privately which may include sensitive personal information or images, often of a sexual nature. This is known as outing.
- an extremely heated online argument using rude and offensive language. This is called flaming.
This hot topic will look at what cyberbullying is, why people engage in bullying behaviour, what the impact is on children and young people, what you as a parent can expect, and the things you can do to help your child in managing a cyberbullying episode.
What is cyberbullying and why do people bully?
'Bullying' is deliberate psychological, emotional and/or physical harassment of one person (or group) by another person (or group). "Cyberbullying" is the label used for bullying that uses electronic means such as the internet and mobile phones to aggressively and intentionally harm someone. It predominantly occurs through SMS, blogs, websites including chat rooms and instant messaging (IM). Because cyberbullying can be anonymous cyberbullies are often emboldened by the protection this gives them. The fear factor for victims can be high as the cyberbully can enter the security of the victim's home and they may feel that there is no escape.
There are lots of different reasons people give for bullying:
- For power and strength over others
- As a way to be popular and get known at school
- For scaring others and thus hiding their own scared feelings
- Using it as a way to try and be happier as they are unhappy and taking it out on others
- Because they are or have been bullied themselves
What can you expect?
Cyberbullying includes name calling, abusive comments, spreading rumours, threats of physical harm, being ignored or excluded, having opinions slammed, online impersonation and being sent rude or upsetting images.
Australian research suggests that cyberbullying most commonly occurs in late primary school and early high school, with one study stating that 10-14 year olds are the most common age group reporting cyberbullying (50.6%). This was closely followed by 15-18 year olds (44.2%). Other studies recorded the overall incidence of cyberbullying to be around 20% of all young people.
In the primary school age group cyberbullying usually focuses on physical appearances while in the secondary school years it tends to focus on relationships and the way people act, especially if they do not fit the norm.
What are the impacts of cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is common and in some cases can be severe because it is covert in nature. It has the potential to involve public humiliation or embarrassment across a wide viral audience and it is enduring in nature. In addition, the bullying behaviour can be invasive as the bully can infiltrate the victim's home and privacy through the use of the internet and mobile phone. Because the bully himself/herself is physically distant, they can be somewhat sheltered from their target's response, and not realise the serious harm they are doing.
Long periods of feeling scared, powerless, helpless, ashamed and other emotions as a result of victimisation by cyberbullies, can have long-lasting effects on children resulting in poorer functioning in social and occupational roles and greater likelihood of repeatedly thinking about suicide right up into adulthood.
- Low self-esteem and loss in confidence
- Sadness or depression
- Decreased academic achievement due to difficulties the affected child has in concentrating or being in a classroom with bullies
- Truancy behaviour to avoid the bullying behaviour
- Poor mental health and persistent feelings of being physically ill
- Self harming/suicidal thoughts and behaviours
- Negative impacts on the quality of their relationships with family, peers, and authority figures.
Signs to help you recognise cyberbullying
Because cyberbullying is covert it can be difficult for parents to detect. Like other types of bullying, some children also feel shame associated with the bullying and may feel afraid to tell others because they believe the situation will get worse or they will be punished. For this reason, parents need to look out for any overt changes in a child's behaviour which may give some clue that they may be being bullied. These signs may include some of the following:
- Unusual reduction in socialising with friends and/or family
- Sudden aversion to using their online or mobile devices
- Avoidance of school
- Dropping out of sports or other recreational activities
- Nervous or jumpy when a mobile text message or email is received
- Extreme sleeping behaviour (either lots more or lots less)
- Abnormal nail biting or other minor or severe self harming behaviours
- Abnormal changes in mood and/or behaviour
Practical things parents can do:
Take time to hear, listen and understand
- Discuss cyberbullying with your child
- Watch out for any abnormal behaviour /mood change
- Role modelling a calm approach will help your child manage their own emotions
- Take complaints from your child seriously because cyberbullying is serious
- Try to ascertain what 'meaning' your child takes from any bullying they experience , for example whether they believe what the bully says about them and reassure them that they are not to blame or responsible for the bullying
- Check whether your child retaliated to bullying by bullying themselves - if so implement strategies that will help them to realise that bullying is totally unacceptable.
Explain the power dynamic of bullying
- Talk about the power dynamic in bullying, and ways to interrupt it. For example, in an online chat room emotional retaliation from the victim shows that they are upset; this continues to give the bully power.
Develop options and solutions
- Discuss how and when the bullying has occurred, how your child has reacted and ways they may have already tried to stop it. It could be useful to document this if it seems you may need to report it to the authorities (e.g. cyber stalking, harassment).
- If they prefer, arrange for another trusted adult to talk to them, or a counsellor
- Assist your child to "call out" the bullying behaviour of others. For example give them tips for how to tell bullies to stop such as saying to the bully " You are going too far - this is bullying and I want you to stop." Or "Stop sending those messages - it's bullying"
- Help your child feel confident to walk away from bullying situations that others may be generating and explain that being passive or laughing along with it, is supporting bullying.
- Specific online and mobile phone strategies include:
- avoid opening emails from cyberbullies or responding to bullies or sending bullying comments on to others. If cyber stalking is involved report it to the authorities as it is a crime.
- if the site permits, suggest they 'block' the bully or remove them from their friend list
- suggest they change their online username or mobile number if the bullying continues
- suggest filing a complaint to the website managers (which may lead to the suspension or termination of the cyberbully's access)
- tentatively suggest some time away from the computer or their mobile phone (respecting the fact that they may not wish to)
- Follow-up after your child tries a solution to find out what is working for them or whether they need more assistance. Engage a professional if you think your child would benefit.
One common fear expressed by children and young people is that they will be banned from using the internet or their mobile if they disclose cyberbullying. Asking your child about what they feel would be a helpful approach will ensure you aren't doing things that might be construed by them as punishment, or that may lead to greater social isolation.
Increase other positive experiences
- Build your child's resilience by highlighting their strengths, reassuring them that they are loved and valued
- Create opportunities for them to expand their support networks
- Involve them in decision-making at home to increase their sense of personal power and control
- Increase enjoyable and fun interests.
- Notify the school of the cyberbullying - find out what the school's anti-bullying policies are and what options are available to you. If you're not happy with the actions of the school, make this clear to relevant local education authorities.
- If you believe the cyberbullying situation is serious enough you may also wish to report the incident to the police.
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
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Updated: July 2014