Cyberbulling: what is it and what can you do?

Helping you understand what forms cyberbullying takes, how it can affect children and how to deal with it.

What exactly is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is any cruel form of communication conducted online or over a smartphone that’s designed to cause someone else discomfort, humiliation and embarrassment. It usually involves posting or sharing unpleasant content and some instances of cyberbullying are now punishable by law.

Where and when does cyberbullying occur?

Cyberbullying can be conducted privately or publicly, it can occur 24 hours a day and it can be just as serious and unpleasant as any other form of traditional bullying. Hotbeds for cyberbullying include:

• Messaging apps and text messages on smartphones and tablets
• Social networks, such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok
• Instant messaging and direct messaging over the internet
• Chat rooms, online forums and message boards
• Email
• Playing videogames online.

What different types of cyberbullying are there?

Modern technology has given rise to an alarming amount of cyberbullying thanks to the prevalence of smartphones, social media and digital forums where content can be created, viewed, shared and commented on.

It can happen persistently. It’s hard for teachers and parents to notice because it cannot be overheard. And it takes many different forms: some more serious than others with legal ramifications.

The facts about cyberbullying

Cyberbullying may be more common than you think. Let’s take a look at some of the statistics around it:

  • In a study conducted in 2014 by Bullying.co.uk, 56% of young respondents said they have witnessed people being cyberbullied and 42% have felt genuinely unsafe online;
  • According to research by Cyberbullying.org, nearly 37% of 12- to 17-year-olds have been harassed while online, 25% have had somebody write a cruel message about them and 68% of children who have been subjected to online intimidation have suffered negative mental health consequences as a result, including stress, anxiety and depression.
  • A study from Ofcom in 2017 suggested that 1 in 8 teens have been exposed to some form of bullying online during their lifetime.
  • Furthermore ditchthelabel.org, an anti-bullying charity, estimates that over 5 million young people have been the victims of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime.

What are the laws against cyberbullying?

Although there is no ultimate legal definition of online bullying within UK law, there are a number of laws that already exist that can be applied to cases of cyberbullying:

  • Malicious Communications Act 1988 says it is an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety
  • Protection from Harassment Act 1997 covers threatening behaviour or harassment, including online and offline stalking
  • Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character
  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; Breach of the Peace (Scotland); and the Defamation Act 2013 can also be used in cases of cyberbullying
  • And under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (EIA 2006) staff and teachers can confiscate items from pupils, such as mobile phones.

A lot of cyberbullying goes unpunished as victims find it difficult to give a detailed account of the incidents to authority figures. Persecuting somebody to the letter of the law will usually involve court proceedings and may be required to give evidence in court as a witness. Naturally, this can be hugely difficult and stressful, prolong any discomfort for the victim and expose them even more than the bullying itself.

How does cyberbullying affect children?

Let’s consider the facts: The Annual Bullying Survey 2017, undertaken by Ditch the Label.org, reveals that although they are prepared to use them, 7 out of 10 teens don’t think social networks are doing enough to prevent cyberbullying.

A YouGov poll revealed just over half of people who have been subject to cyberbullying actually bother to report the incident to the platform in question. And according to ResearchGate, victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who haven’t been subjected to cyberbullying.

What can parents do about cyberbullying?

There are a number of things you can do as a parent to prevent cyberbullying and deal with it positively should it already be in progress.

  • Build trust: Talk to your child about the issues they may have to face online, or may already be facing, with candour and tolerance. Be someone they can confide in, not someone they are afraid of opening up to.
  • Talk it through: If your child has a problem, listen to them carefully, remain calm and do not judge. Let your child know they are not alone and that you will deal with it together in the appropriate manner.
  • Be reasonable: If you do find out some form of cyberbullying is affecting your child, please don’t simply ban them from going online. A lot of tech-savvy, online-orientated young adults fear this punishment to such an extent, they will not begin to tell the truth about their situation in the first place.
  • Block, report but don’t delete: Cyberbullies aren’t anywhere near as powerful when you shut them down. Block any offenders immediately and report them to the social platform in question (we’ll outline how to do this on each platform below). You should also gather evidence of the bullying should the issue go any further. Be calm and think methodically.
  • Support, support, support: Cyberbullying does not go away overnight. Stay on top of it with your child by reassuring them that you are always there to help should they need you.

Cyberbullying and social media

Social media networking platforms are billed as harmless places for our children to share their lives and talents with their friend group and broaden their social horizons, but it’s rarely that simple.

The truth is that social networking sites can be rife with inappropriate behaviour and often be a very difficult place for young people to navigate on their own. Certain people not liking their posts can engender feelings of rejection; nasty comments can overwhelm them; and other posts can make their lives seem pathetic or pointless in comparison.

It is an important thing, therefore, that you are there for them on their social media journey: you should know how the app works and how your child uses it. You should regularly talk to them about it and you should monitor their social media usage and any changes in behaviour resulting from prolonged screen time.

Over and above this, you should encourage them at all times not to share any personal information that someone could use against them.

How parental controls can help protect from cyberbullying

Parental controls on social media sites aren’t always the most obvious things, but look beneath the surface a bit and you will find that most social media companies have built them in. Let’s examine the most popular ones below and see what control parents can take…

What should I do if my child is the cyberbully?

Not every child is a victim. Here’s some advice if your child is the one doing the bullying:

  • Acknowledge the problem. Do not bury your head in the sand. Your child is causing hurt and pain to others. Come to terms with it yourself before you help them.
  • Remain calm and try to fathom why they would do this. When discussing it with them, don’t demonise them or attack them.
  • Communicate openly and encourage your child to be honest. Try to make sure they know that they can tell you anything: cyberbullying may be a retaliation to something negative going on in their lives.
  • Try to get to the root of the problem. Unhappy people usually want to make others unhappy. Try to figure out what belies the inappropriate behaviour your child is indulging in.
  • Dig deeper. Try to fathom the extent of the bullying: does it span multiple apps or is it fairly limited and random.
  • Encourage empathy. Try and help your child understand the negative effects they are causing in someone else’s world. Cultivating compassion can go a long way to changing your child’s behaviour.
  • Educate yourself. Stay on top of your child’s social media life by understanding more about the apps and how your child uses them. Communicate with them and learn from them and with them.
  • Set up parental controls.

You can find out more about internet safety and gain that extra peace of mind from Internet Matters.

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