Cyberbullying: Pulling off the Mask

How often do our children confide in us about a problem they face either at school, the playground, or any other social environment? If they don’t, it would be next-to-impossible for us to help them, right? However, do you remember your childhood — when you faced a social challenge, such as bullying — did you get the right kind of support and guidance that could have helped you then?

I conducted a survey[1] in October 2019 where 60 parents of children between the ages of 3-16 years from countries, such as India, France, USA, Ireland, Ecuador, and Trinidad and Tobago, participated. When asked whether their children ever discuss the social challenges they are facing or might have faced in the past, around 28% of parents responded that their children do not face any social challenges. But around 58% agreed that their children have faced or continue to face bullying. Among these parents, 51% confirmed that the biggest social challenge faced by their child has been bullying, either verbal or physical, in-person or online.

So, what do we mean when we use the term ‘bullying’? Jimerson et al.[2] define bullying as a “repeated aggressive behavior in which there is an imbalance of power or strength between the two parties” (p.1). Hollá et al.[3] elaborate on this further by listing three criteria while defining acts of bullying: “i) intentionality; ii) repetition; and iii) imbalance of power” (p.2).

Bullying behaviors may be direct or indirect. While the direct acts might include physically hurting, name-calling, etc., the indirect acts may comprise spreading rumors, social exclusion, or cyberbullying. Though cyberbullying is not a new phenomenon, COVID-19 has made it a more prevalent and immediate risk in our lives. In their guide on Safe Online Learning in Times of COVID[4], NCERT and UNESCO define cyberbullying as involving “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature…” (p.2). This pandemic has redefined how we view and utilise the world wide web. I know of many parents who didn’t want to expose their children to the world of the Internet yet. These were primarily due to their concerns around privacy and safety as well as fears of excess screen time and resultant addiction to online games and media. However, now we are forced to rethink our parenting ways and methodologies. On the one hand, there is the mandated requirement of online classes that most children now have to go through. On the other hand, there is also helplessness of a parent to find engagements for their children who’re cooped up indoors while they grapple with the pressures of work-from-home and work-at-home. Given this situation, children are at higher risk owing to cybersecurity concerns. This risk can be two-fold — both in terms of the content being consumed by them online as well as in terms of how they participate in or interact with the online content.

In India, cyberbullying has been classified as a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code and Information Technology Act of 2000. Having said that, how easy is it to report or investigate an instance of cyberbullying? An online bully can easily stay anonymous by using fictitious accounts; they can hide behind the screen rather than face their victims in person; and most of the discussions on social media sites aren’t supervised. This gives bullies the leverage they need to perpetrate the act. When Holla et al3 define repetition as a necessary criterion to define bullying, we need to consider an important aspect in the case of cyberbullying. A harmful act of cyberbullying doesn’t need to be repeated by a bully. The fact that the harmful content, be it in terms of text, images, or videos, will be available online for an indefinite time and can easily be shared or viewed can continue to cause trauma and threat to the victim.

Cyberbullying, like direct bullying, can impact a child’s level of self-esteem, their academic performance, and can traumatise them for life. Some may even lose confidence in using electronic resources, despite being steeped in a digitally ambitious era. I know of a 19-year old student who chooses to maintain zero presence online because of a traumatic cyberbullying incident she experienced in her early teens. Jimerson et al2 elaborate on this point that “bullying is not a part of normative development for children and adolescents and should be considered a precursor to more serious aggressive behaviors. It is also clear that bullying can contribute to an environment of fear and intimidation in schools” (p.14).

How can we, as parents, keep an eye out to protect our children? Lacko[5] lists five signs by Brian Bason, CEO of Bark, which may indicate that a child is being cyberbullied:

  1. Appearing upset after accessing the internet or social media on their digital device;
  2. Seeming nervous upon receiving notifications on their digital device;
  3. Showing hesitation to share the reasons with the parent or to show their digital device;
  4. Appearing withdrawn, moody, or often nervous; and
  5. Showing changes in “behavior, sleep patterns, or grades at school” (pr.6).

What are some ways to safeguard and ensure our children’s online safety?

  1. Talk about the importance of empathy and kindness – Empathy and kindness are skills that empower and are not to be seen as weaknesses. Tell your children not to indulge in bullying or share/forward any posts or media that may be harmful to an individual or group.
  2. Be supportive – When children feel emotionally supported, they are shown to have better emotional awareness and management. This, as a result, helps in developing their emotional competence to deal with acts of bullying.
  3. Keep the communication channels open with your children – Measure your responses while you listen to and speak with them. Your reactions today may determine their comfort level with you later on.
  4. Do not resort to blaming or threats – Your children need to be able to trust you. Ensure that they know that any form of bullying isn’t their fault. Do not threaten to take away their digital devices as this may instill fear in them and they may choose not to share if they are facing bullying instances.
  5. Don’t make light of the issue – To ensure a sense of safety and security, children need to know that their anxiety is normal and needs to be dealt with. Don’t joke about it and don’t ask them to ignore it. Let them know how you intend to handle the incident.
  6. Set rules and explain the logic behind them – Discuss the need for specific rules about internet access and work with them to set them in place. For example, ensure that they access their digital devices in an area where you can monitor their online behaviour, if need be, and allocate specific timing for the use of the internet. Explain the importance of online safety and appropriate ways of online behaviour as well.
  7. Maintain records – If your child faces cyberbullying, tell them not to respond or retaliate. Take screenshots or printouts and file a case with the Cyber Cell. It would also be a good idea to report the account of the cyberbully to the relevant social media support team.

For more information on how you can protect your children from cyberbullying, you may also refer to the additional resources listed under Bibliography.

Bibliography

  1. Menon, Divya. “Games for Social Skills.” ResearchGate, 2019. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337101979_Games_for_social_skills.
  2. Jimerson, Shane R., Susan M. Swearer, and Dorothy L Espelage. “Handbook of Bullying in Schools: An International Perspective.” ResearchGate, 2010. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259249697_Handbook_of_bullying_in_schools_An_international_perspective.
  3. Hollá, Katarína, Lívia Fenyvesiová, and Jana Hanuliaková. “Measurement of Cyber-Bullying Severity.” ResearchGate, 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316113477_Measurement_of_Cyber-bullying_severity.
  4. NCERT, and UNESCO. “Safe Online Learning in Times of COVID-19 – UNESCO Digital Library,” 2020. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373605.locale=en.
  5. Lacko R. 5 Ways Parents Can Help Prevent Cyberbullying [Internet]. HuffPost. 2017 [cited 2020 Jun 16]. Available from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/five-ways-parents-can-help-prevent-cyberbullying_b_58ed0627e4b0145a227cb8b1

Additional Resources:

  1. CBSE, and Cyber Peace Foundation. “Cyber Safety Manual,” 2020. http://cbseacademic.nic.in/web_material/Manuals/Cyber_Safety_Manual.pdf.
  2. Divecha, Diana. “What Are the Best Ways to Prevent Bullying in Schools?” Greater Good, 2019. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_are_the_best_ways_to_prevent_bullying_in_schools.
  3. Eble, Karen. “Cyber-Bullying: What Parents Can Do About It.” The Center for Parenting Education (blog). Accessed June 16, 2020. https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/handling-bullying-issues/cyber-bullying-what-parents-can-do-about-it/.
  4. Olweus, Dan. “Understanding and Researching Bullying: Some Critical Issues.” In Handbook of Bullying in Schools: An International Perspective, 9–33. New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Understanding-and-Researching-Bullying%3A-Some-Issues-Olweus/931ce8aa2451c25f3d11947cc07f97b61024d1df

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