Cyberbullying can have a serious effect on those involved, with the potential to impact on a student’s social, psychological and even physical wellbeing. But what are some of the warning signs that a student is being cyberbullied and what measures can we take to help prevent it?
Cyberbullying is the act of intentionally inciting hurt towards another person through the use of technology, such as phones or computers. Some of the ways cyberbullying can be carried out include text messages, emails, social media, chat rooms and websites. And, the effects of cyberbullying don’t always end as soon as the bullying stops. For some, it can contribute to low self-esteem and reduced academic performance, with long-reaching consequences.
eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, who commenced her five-year-appointment to the role in January 2017, defines cyberbullying as a social and behavioural issue that plays out in a technological sphere, pointing out that it is not caused by the technology itself. “With that said, apps and social media services are misused to bully and harass others. Widely used apps by young people are generally the platforms of choice, however we know other apps, like anonymous messaging apps, can also be a breeding ground for this insidious behaviour,” she says.
“As apps and technology continue to evolve, we are working to encourage industry to better protect young users by building safety by design principles into the development process – at the outset, before a new app or product is released.”
According to Sandra Craig, Manager at the National Centre Against Bullying (NCAB), at The Alannah & Madeline Foundation, taking a restorative view of the bullying situation is a more effective approach than simply labelling those involved in the incident as victims and bullies. “Roles can and do switch very easily – the bullying student one day can be targeted the next. So it’s important not to demonise kids who are bullying, but to look at their behaviour and see how it can be amended,” she says.
An initiative of the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, NCAB is a peak body that aims to advise and inform the Australian community on the issue of childhood bullying and the creation of safe schools and communities, including issues relating to cyber safety.
“When we talk about restorative solutions, we’re talking about a philosophy that acknowledges that when a person does harm to another person they also harm themselves and the whole community. That harm needs to be repaired. The process of reparation means educating young people to understand that others have been affected by their behaviour and involves a plan for their future behaviour. The key thing is for the bullying to stop. This is usually all the bullied kid wants: punishment is a point of view that tends to deny growth of empathy and civil behaviour,” explains Ms Craig. “Needless to say, restorative processes are not a quick fix. While some schools expel students, there is evidence showing this is a poor outcome for the student and those close to them, at the time and into the future.”
In 2015, the eSafety Office was established with a mandate to coordinate and lead the online safety efforts across government, industry and the not-for-profit community. It is legislated to take action on any cyberbullying material that is likely to be seriously threatening, seriously intimidating, seriously harassing or seriously humiliating to an Australian child.
Research from the eSafety Office shows that 1 in 5 Australians aged 8 to 17 experience cyberbullying, while 1 in 4 are physically bullied.
“From the 900 cyberbullying reports into our office, the average age of a target is 14, and girls report more so than boys. We also know that the majority of reports appear to be peer-based and an extension of the face-to-face bullying a child might be experiencing within the school gates,” says Ms Inman Grant.
Figures show a strong degree of equivalence between those who are bullied on and offline, and those who bully in both ways.
“There is a growing consensus that many, if not most adolescents who are victimised online or by text messaging also experience traditional forms of bullying at school,” adds Ms Craig.
She highlights a research paper titled ‘Impacts of traditional bullying and cyberbullying on the mental health of middle school and high school students’ (2015), published in the Psychology in the Schools academic journal, Vol. 52 (6); where authors Craig Hase and Simon Goldberg from the University of Wisconsin; and Douglas Smith, Andrew Stuck and Jessica Campain from Southern Oregon University; cite a number of researchers who have compared traditionally bullied and cyberbullied victims, referencing the following rates:
• Juvonen and Gross revealed overlap rates of 65% in ‘Extending the school grounds? Bullying experiences in cyberspace’, as published in the Journal of School Health (2008);
• Hinduja and Patchin reported overlap rates as high as 85% in ‘Cyberbullying: An exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and victimization’, as published in Deviant Behavior (2008);
• While some investigators reported overlap rates to be as high as 93%.
“Here at the National Centre Against Bullying, we see bullying as a relationship based problem – that is, something has broken down in a relationship. That having been said, the best place to address the situation and work towards restoring the relationship is within the place where the bullying occurs – most often a school, but also at sporting clubs, businesses, etc,” says Ms Craig.
NCAB identifies several types of cyberbullying. These include:
• Assuming the identity of another person and representing them in a negative manner. For example, posting embarrassing or nasty messages that can damage their relationship with others;
• Sending anonymous texts;
• Posting anonymously on a website;
• Mean, insulting, rude or offensive content sent directly to the target;
• Spreading rumours;
• Sending or distributing sexual messages or images;
• Outing or sharing secrets;
• Creating hate sites; and
The most common types of cyberbullying reported into the eSafety Office include serious threats of harm or incitement to suicide, the setting up of fake profiles and the posting of offensive or upsetting photos. “But, young people also tell us that covert bullying and social exclusion are distressing forms of online drama they experience,” adds Ms Inman Grant.
While cyberbullying is often visible to peers online, she explains that it may be hidden away from parents and teachers. “Of further concern, our research shows only 55% of young people spoke to an adult, and just 8% spoke to a teacher or principal about a negative online issue. So, while it may be difficult for teachers – and parents – to pinpoint if a young person is suffering, there are signs to look out for. These include a change in friendship groups, a decline in school grades, they appear upset, nervous or secretive when using their devices or their attendance at school slips.”
Ms Inman Grant says that if a teacher becomes aware of a student who is being cyberbullied, they should follow the school’s policy or procedure on handling bullying and cyberbullying. “Generally, we encourage a trusted adult to listen carefully in a non-judgmental manner, find out as much information as possible and ask students to collect screenshots for evidence. Encourage them to use the reporting and blocking tools on the social media service or app, and to report to the eSafety Office if the harmful content has not been removed within 48 hours. If the child is struggling to open up, encourage them to contact Kids Helpline, which can provide 24/7 confidential advice and support,” she explains.
“The most important thing we can do to combat cyberbullying is to prevent these behaviours from occurring, by educating and equipping our young people with the four Rs of online safety for the digital age: respect, resilience, responsibility and reasoning. These skills should be reinforced consistently throughout a child’s educational experience. There are a range of evidence-based resources currently available and mapped to the National Curriculum, including online safety education resources developed by the eSafety Office.”
Ms Inman Grant points to the eSafety Office’s Young & eSafe website, which offers lesson plans targeted towards Years 9 and 10, with practical exercises to reinforce respectful and responsible online behaviours; the award-winning Rewrite Your Story video series that addresses the complex issues of cyberbullying and how to deal with its challenges, accompanied by lesson plans; and the recently launched video game, The Lost Summer, designed specifically for the classroom and targeted at students from 11 to 14 years of age.
The Lost Summer is the first video game to be created by the eSafety Office. Encouraging digital intelligence and online safety skills among students, it immerses players in a futuristic environment where they are required to exercise skills such as critical thinking, empathy, resilience, respect and responsibility to complete challenges and advance through the game.
“As we know, gamification is a great way to engage students and allow them to practice skills in a fun and interactive environment. The Lost Summer is an engaging way to get young Australians thinking about the social and emotional skills they need to navigate the online world safely. We’ve created a gamified experience that will resonate with young people as they learn the importance of digital intelligence,” says Ms Inman Grant.
The video game also aims to address issues with in-game bullying, with research from the eSafety Office showing that 17% of those aged 8 to 17 who play multiplayer games online were bullied or abused during gameplay. “Young people are bound to encounter negative online experiences – it’s not if but when. We need to provide young people with solution-focused strategies to ensure they can bounce back from tough situations. The Lost Summer empowers young people to be agents of positive change online,” Ms Inman Grant adds.
Both the eSafety Office and NCAB agree that the key to reducing bullying starts with prevention.
When it comes to preventing and addressing bullying, NCAB advocates a whole-school approach that involves all members of the school’s community rather than relying only on programmatic solutions.
The Alannah & Madeline Foundation’s eSmart Schools initiative, now in use at over 2300 Australian schools, is a holistic system designed to assist schools to address bullying, cybersafety and wellbeing through its organisation, policies, curriculum, pedagogy and relationships with families. The Foundation also offers ‘Connect’ seminars and workshops on topics that include cybersafety, gaming, bullying and respectful relationships.
In addition, the eSafety Office is now offering a new series of professional development webinars for teachers, including modules on Preventing and Managing Cyberbullying, and Safety and Respect Online.
“As schools are often at the coalface of these social issues, they play an important role in preventing, identifying and responding to cyberbullying incidents. We encourage schools to implement robust policies and procedures for dealing with online issues such as cyberbullying, and to review these on a regular basis,” adds Ms Inman Grant. “It’s important these policies and procedures are widely consulted on – with staff, parents, and students where appropriate. Policies should be promoted and even sent home for parent or carer’s signatures to ensure the whole school community is aware of the expectations and procedures in place should this behaviour occur. The eSafety Office provides an eSafety checklist and a parent communication and engagement strategy for school leadership teams to help improve current policies and the ways they communicate about online issues with parents.”