Many children face the fear and dread of having a bully at school, but also online. With the growth of the internet has come an increase in cyberbullying and children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities are especially vulnerable. A large study of children in the UK in 2015 found that 43 per cent of young people experience bullying, on a nearly weekly basis, and that those at the greatest risk are children living with disabilities.
Bullying and cerebral palsy
That same study also found that appearance was the number one aggressor that led a bully to target a particular victim, whether that meant weight, hair colour, or something else. For a child with cerebral palsy looking different is inescapable. These children are vulnerable to bullying for being different and looking different.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition that affects muscle tone and movements. While the consequences of this may range from mild to severe, and vary by which parts of the body are affected, most children with this condition exhibit movements that look different. Their movements may be spastic, the muscles of the throat and mouth may be affected and cause drooling, and some of these children walk with difficulty, if at all.
Cyberbullying and disabilities
Bullying is not reserved for the schoolyard or the walk home. Sixty-two per cent of young people who have been bullied report experiencing cyberbullying, or being targeted online. There are many ways in which an online bully may attack a disabled victim:
- Sending texts or messages that are threatening.
- Excluding a child from online activities.
- Sending embarrassing or mean videos, images or comments about a disabled child to other young people online.
- Telling someone online to hurt or kill himself or herself.
- Using fake online accounts to impersonate or target a disabled victim.
- Sending messages that are sexual in nature.
- Creating hate sites targeting a victim.
The effects of bullying on children with cerebral palsy
Living with cerebral palsy comes with challenges: physical, emotional, educational, and social challenges. Fitting in as a child with a disability isn't always easy, but when that child is also being bulled, the impacts can be devastating. Victims of cyberbullying and in-person bullying are more likely than their peers to miss school, to do poorly academically, and to drop out of school.
These victims are also likely to be excluded socially, not just by bullies, but by other students. They are at risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression and may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. These mental health challenges may continue well into adulthood. Disabled victims of bullying are also at risk of committing suicide.
Parents, teachers, other adults, and children too, can all help reduce the incidence of bullying of kids with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Children can befriend those who are different, include them in activities, and stand up for those who are being victimised. For adults, it is crucial to look out for signs of bullying and to not turn a blind eye to these. When everyone works together to support those who are vulnerable, bullying and cyberbullying can be reduced.
The annual celebration of Safer Internet Day (SID) provides a perfect opportunity to raise awareness of some of the issues children and young people face online, and to work together to overcome them. SID 2017 will take place on Tuesday, 7 February 2017 with a theme of ‘Be the change: Unite for a better internet'. Find out more and get involved at www.saferinternetday.org.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Better Internet for Kids Portal, European Schoolnet, the European Commission or any related organisations or parties.