Insafe insights on... cyberbullying

The “Insafe insights…” series draws on the experience and expertise of the Insafe network to tackle some of the most topical issues encountered in its day-to-day operations. Drawing on statistics and helpline case studies, this resource aims to outline the issue and some possible responses, while also pointing to sources of further information and support.

2020-10-12 BIK Team awareness cyberbullying organisations and industry, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
A woman and a boy look at a computer screen worryingly

The Insafe network of awareness centres, helplines and youth panels, in partnership with INHOPE (the International Association of Internet Hotlines, dedicated to the removal of illegal online content), operate Safer Internet Centres (SICs) in EU Member States, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the United Kingdom in the drive to keep children and young people safe online. Through a range of services, SICs respond to the latest online issues, helping to promote the many opportunities the online world offers, while also addressing the challenges. And while Europe’s children and youth are the main benefactors of this work, the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) programme of activities also reaches out to, and collaborates with, a range of other stakeholders – parents and carers, teachers and educators, researchers, industry, civil society, decision makers and law enforcement.

The “Insafe insights…” series draws on the experience and expertise of the Insafe network to tackle some of the most topical issues encountered in its day-to-day operations. Drawing on statistics and helpline case studies, this resource aims to outline the issue and some possible responses, while also pointing to sources of further information and support.

Cyberbullying… a definition

Firstly, it is important to define what exactly cyberbullying entails. It is interesting to note that many of the existing definitions tend to include the words "deliberately" (or “intentionally”) and "repeatedly".

Indeed, Wikipedia cites a definition elaborated by Professor Megan A. Moreno, MD, MSEd, Academic Division Chief of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine Division and Vice Chair of Digital Health in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which states that cyberbullying is:

An aggressive, intentional act or behaviour that is carried out by a group or an individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself.

The Department for Education in the UK defines cyberbullying as:

The use of technologies by an individual or by a group of people to deliberately and repeatedly upset someone else.

Meanwhile, the Insafe network defines cyberbullying in the following way:

Cyberbullying usually involves a child being picked on, ridiculed and intimidated by another child, other children or adults, using online technologies. It may involve psychological violence and can be intentional and unintentional.

Cyberbullying can be very destructive, as demonstrated by several high-profile cases in recent years – such as those of Megan Meier in the US and Hannah Smith in the UK –  where children and young people have allegedly committed suicide as a result of cyberbullying. When some young people contact a helpline, it is up to the counsellor to determine how to log the contact and which category of online risk to use. Helpline colleagues are very clear that a majority of the contacts contain an element of what could be deemed to be cyberbullying.

It is important to recognise that individuals can be very upset by comments made about them online, but that these comments may not have been made intentionally. Although this type of action may not fit into the definitions of cyberbullying, it can still cause significant problems which need to be addressed. Young people often talk about situations where they have said something to an individual online with no malice intended but it was subsequently misinterpreted. Without the benefit of facial expressions, body language, context and tone of voice, it can be more difficult to determine how something was supposed to be understood. Emojis or emoticons can help provide this context, but the reality is that they too are open to different interpretations.

An EU-funded project called ENABLE (European Network Against Bullying in Learning and Leisure Environment) focused on tackling bullying in a holistic way, helping young people to exercise their fundamental rights in the home, school, class and community. The project combined social and emotional aspects of learning with peer support in order to provide teachers and school staff with the skills to be able to establish an effective peer support scheme.

There have also been other projects which have focused on the role of the bystander in cyberbullying situations, in particular some powerful video resources which look at the online verses offline aspects of bullying. The videos try to highlight the different ways in which people will behave online alongside what is deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable.

Cyberbullying can take on many forms, such as cyberbullying by exclusion, which is something that is seen frequently in schools. In this phenomenon, an individual is targeted and then purposely left out of a group discussion online or ghosted, meaning that all contacts with someone cease without any explanation. Another common problem is doxing or outing, where very personal or sensitive information is shared online with others in order to embarrass or humiliate someone.
It is important that children and young people know how and where to report cyberbullying if it happens to them or equally if they are aware of it happening to someone else.

Experiences from the Insafe network

Cyberbullying currently accounts for around 16 to 18 per cent of calls to Insafe helplines. According to data collected from April to June 2020, 16 per cent of calls were related to cyberbullying, with around a quarter of helplines finding that cyberbullying was the most common issue for young people to contact them about. Therefore, across the Insafe network, cyberbullying has consistently been the biggest issue for young people for over five years.

Indeed, SICs are keen to point out that cyberbullying is still a significant issue, as shown by its extensive presence in the media for years – although more focus tends to be given to newer concerns such as hate speech, live streaming or sextortion. Yet, cyberbullying still needs to be addressed and it is important that more people are encouraged to report it when it happens so that they can be given the appropriate help and support to adequately deal with it.

Social media providers have introduced new tools on their platforms to combat cyberbullying and the Insafe network is regularly consulted about such changes, offering valuable feedback and also incorporating changes into the awareness-raising sessions they run. Sadly, while a range of promising tools have been made available, too many users remain unaware of their existence.

Further Insafe helpline statistics can be found on the Better Internet for Kids portal

Insafe helpline case studies

In practice, the boundary between on- and offline bullying is often blurred and these two phenomena are often connected, as can be seen in the case below, which was dealt with by the Maltese helpline.

A 12-year-old girl called the helpline as she was being bullied and cyberbullied by her school mates. Four girls created a Facebook page and uploaded edited (photoshopped) images of the girl with unpleasant and harsh comments about her. The four also told the girl that if they met her outside of school, they would beat her up, and this did happen on one occasion. The girl was very scared and spent the whole summer staying at home as a result. The girl and her mother were advised to report the matter to the police. The girl was also offered one-to-one support.

It is often adults who get in touch with the helplines, trying to get help and advice on how to support children and young people in their care, as demonstrated in the case below, which emanated from the Bulgarian helpline.

A woman called (the helpline) on behalf of the mother of a 17- or 18-year-old girl, and explained a situation of cyberbullying: the girl had a boyfriend who was threatening her and saying that if she didn’t do what he asked then he would publish her pictures on Facebook which would embarrass and humiliate her in front of all her friends. The boy created fake accounts, uploaded her pictures and then deleted the profiles. The girl was very afraid and confused, as were her parents. The Bulgarian helpline advised that the girl should copy and save all of the threatening correspondence with her boyfriend and then report all of the threats to Facebook. If there were any naked pictures online, then these should also be reported to the Bulgarian hotline, which is also part of the Bulgarian SIC. Helpline counsellors also made it clear that they were available to help with any of the reporting as needed. They also advised the girl to stop any contact with the boy and to speak to a school psychologist or psychotherapist if she needed further support.

Helplines will often provide very specific advice and guidance about how to address a particular problem on a particular platform, as can be seen in the response below:

The other part of your inquiry concerns technical aspects regarding social media, and how you may change your settings on your profiles so that it will be harder for others to send you those types of messages. I would be very pleased to help you with this. Today, Facebook is a tool which is an important part of our lives; we use it for all kinds of communication and planning, so it is close to impossible to opt out. However, you should not have to put up with the fact that others negatively comment on your photos. Each time you find (or have found) that a particular person writes something negative, then add them to your “Restricted list” (more information is available in the Facebook Help Centre). In the future, when you share a photo or a post with your friends, this particular person will not be able to see your post (and thus, comment on it). On ASKfm, you need to deselect the option of “allowing anonymous questions” in your settings. You should not participate in your own abuse. By using your settings on social media, you also let your followers know that you do not accept being insulted. Strangely, someone may think that you do not mind being insulted because you do not speak up. Of course, this is completely wrong. Tell them ‘no’ – and remember, nothing is wrong with you. The ‘people’ who write condescending comments are the ones who have a problem. Go through your settings, and ruthlessly use your block function. You don’t do anything wrong by saying ‘no’ to the ones who abuse you. On the contrary, you show strength.

Insafe resources

SICs have developed various educational resources and awareness-raising videos aimed at helping teachers and educators, parents and carers, and children and young people, to discover the online world safely. A selection of resources touching on issues relating to cyberbullying are detailed below:

Many more resources are available from the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) resource gallery, covering a whole range of online safety issues in a variety of languages.

Further information and advice

For further information and advice, please contact your national Safer Internet Centre (SIC).

To keep up to date with safer and better internet issues more generally, visit this website often, subscribe to the quarterly BIK bulletin, or check out the Insafe Facebook page and Insafe Twitter profile.

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