Latest BIK bulletin: Cyberbullying revisited

In each edition of the BIK bulletin, we look at a topical issue – this month our focus is on "cyberbullying revisited" as we look back at the developments made in recent years in tackling bullying online and highlight some of the latest approaches and resources.

Date 2017-03-30 Author BIK Team

Bullying has been a problem in society since the dawn of time. It occurs at schools and in the work place; in fact, wherever there are people. Unfortunately, it stands to reason that as new ways of communication and interaction have evolved, so too have the ways in which bullying can take place. In this edition of the BIK bulletin, we will seek to briefly explore some of the research and consider how prevalent cyberbullying is and what is actually meant by the term. Schools are clearly at the forefront of the issue and are dealing with it in a variety of ways but what is effective, what are the best resources and does peer education really work? Many teachers and parents grew up in a world without the internet and so bullying rather than cyberbullying was the issue. Most adults are very aware of the differences between on- and offline communication but, in many cases, children and young people are not.

A definition of cyberbullying is important and most tend to include the words "deliberately" (or intentionally) and "repeatedly". Wikipedia cites the definition from Megan Moreno [1] 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".

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 be used to help to provide this context, but the reality is that they too are open to different interpretations.

danah boyd in her book It's complicated: The social lives of networked teens noted that "…the public does not necessarily embrace scholarly definitions of bullying. More often, adults use bullying as an umbrella term". boyd explains that during her fieldwork for the book she met parents who saw every act of teasing as bullying, even when their children did not. This is particularly challenging for schools and is one of the reasons why a shared definition is so important.

Given a better understanding of what is meant by cyberbullying, it is important to ask how serious the problem is – and how prevalent it is in reality. This is in itself a complex question given the amount of cyberbullying content that is probably going unreported.

Research varies, but cyberbullying is undeniably a problem as people can be unpleasant to one another online just as they can in a face-to-face or offline situation. The Net Children Go Mobile research (published in 2014) found that 27 per cent of 9-16 year olds had experienced bullying with 14 per cent experiencing cyberbullying. 21 per cent of them felt "very" or "a bit" upset by this. A more recent report from Microsoft (published in February 2017 on the occasion of Safer Internet Day) focused on digital civility and found that 19 per cent of adults and 29 per cent of young people had a family member or friend who had been cyberbullied, with 35 per cent and 44 per cent respectively knowing someone who was a victim of trolling. On average, 9 per cent or respondents said that cyberbullying had happened to them.

Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin are co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Centre based in the US and their mission is to bring sound research about cyberbullying to those who can benefit most from it. Their website,, contains a wealth of information that teachers and parents will find useful. In their book Words Wound, Patchin and Hinduja explain that, over the past 10 years, an average of about 24 per cent of students that they have surveyed said that they had been the target of cyberbullying at some point, and around 11 per cent had experienced this in the last 30 days. 17 per cent of students admitted that they had cyberbullied someone else with 8 per cent having done so in the previous 30 days.

A study commissioned by the Policy Department for Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the LIBE Committee (August 2016), outlines the variety of definitions of cyberbullying across EU Member States and the similarities and differences between cyberbullying, traditional bullying and cyber aggression. It also showcases some successful strategies at combating cyberbullying in nine selected countries.

Different types of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying can take on a number of different forms and is referred to in many different ways; for example, cyberbullying in games is often referred to as "griefing". There is clearly a good deal of overlap but the list below gives some indication of the ways in which children, young people and adults can be victimised. Some need no explanation, but some definitions are included.

  • Threats and intimidation
  • Harassment or stalking – this could be the repeated sending of unwanted messages to an individual or to a group and could also include tracking someone's activity and collecting information about them. Unfortunately, much of this information can be readily and freely available online.
  • Vilification/defamation – Insafe helplines have regularly discussed this problem for users of social media. One example of this type of cyberbullying is "slut-shaming" where an individual is attacked online for what someone deems to be unacceptable behaviour. The ultimate goal is to publicly humiliate and embarrass them.
  • Ostracising/peer rejection/exclusion
  • Identity theft/unauthorised access and impersonation
  • Publicly posting, sending or forwarding personal or private information or images
  • Trolling – this is gratuitous online cruelty; one reporter referred to it as "recreational abuse, usually anonymous, intended to waste the subject's time or get a rise out of them or frustrate or frighten them into silence"[2]. Trolling will often see particularly hurtful messages being posted when someone has died or is seriously ill which can be very distressing for other family members. Very often celebrities, sports personalities or those in the public eye are the victim of trolling as this recent example shows.
  • Roasting – where a group of people will gang up against an individual and post or send offensive content about them until the victim "cracks".
  • Flaming – it is often said that cyberbullies are looking for an argument or confrontation. Flaming is the intentional sending of inflammatory messages and content to goad someone into starting an argument online.

Cyberbullying through exclusion is also a growing problem and is often hidden from the eyes of adults (i.e. teachers and parents). In some cases, pupils have purposely excluded one of their peers from an online conversation – or when an individual posts content, no one comments on or likes it. Even if adults are using the same social media platforms as children and young people, they are unlikely to be part of such conversations and this is a significant difference from more traditional forms of bullying. Children could always be isolated by their peers but before the internet it would have been easier to spot, and both adults and young people themselves would have been more likely to have seen what was happening and done the right thing.

In recent years, there have also been stories in the media which have identified a different type of cyberbullying sometimes called self-cyberbullying or digital self-harm. One of the most high-profile examples of this was the case of Hannah Smith which attracted a huge amount of press coverage in the UK at the time. The newspapers said that Hannah had committed suicide as a result of being cyberbullied on ASKfm. The resulting media frenzy noted that Hannah's father found posts on her ASKfm page telling her to die[3]. The British Prime Minister even intervened and urged everyone to boycott sites where this type of thing was happening. However, following a police investigation, it emerged that Hannah had actually sent the messages to herself and that she was not a victim of cyberbullying. Dr Linda Papadopoulos has recently written about digital self-harm and offers some advice to parents on how they can support their children with this. She notes that young people often invite others to harm them with content that they might post on social networking sites.

Responses to cyberbullying
There are many ways to deal with cyberbullying, and effective approaches may draw upon several. Some methods are outlined below.

Education vs regulation
Back in 2009, Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer published a research paper titled Cyberbullying Legislation: Why Education is Preferable to Regulation. The paper argued that "Cyberbullying is a rising online safety concern" and that when "compared to previous fears about online predation, which have been greatly overblown, concerns about cyberbullying are more well-founded". Szoka and Thierer noted that there was evidence to suggest that cyberbullying was on the rise and could have profoundly damaging consequences for children. They also argued that legislation and potentially criminalising children and young people was not the right approach and that education would be more effective. Education and empowerment rather than regulation has been the mantra for many online safety organisations in recent years although some of the more serious cases have rightly sparked debate and discussion about legislation.

Recognising and changing certain behaviours
Clearly cyberbullying is a problem and there are vast amounts of resources and government-funded programmes aimed at preventing it and eradicating the problem. In some places we have been educating about cyberbullying for many years now, but has it made any difference? Is the problem being addressed effectively? There are regular stories in the media which clearly illustrate how unpleasant people can be using technology and many argue that adults do not set a good example in this area. Several years ago, danah boyd talked about something called the "net effect" – she acknowledged that when we use the internet we lose our inhibitions and will often say things in a way that we wouldn't dream of saying in a face-to-face situation. The power that individuals can feel when they are sitting behind a screen can lead to much more aggressive and direct interactions.

A recent European project called ENABLE (European Network Against Bullying in Learning and Leisure Environments) provides a knowledge base of information including consideration of how widespread bullying is and how it can be prevented. The project takes a holistic and sustainable approach to reduce bullying by involving pupils and their teachers and parents/carers. A series of 10 lessons influence pupils' behaviour by helping to develop their social and emotional skills and encouraging them to reflect on their own and their peers' behaviour. The ENABLE project also provides ideas for effective measures that schools, pupils and parents can put in place in order to prevent bullying and minimise the impacts on an individual.

The importance of reporting
A real concern is that children and young people are not reporting instances of cyberbullying. There are many reasons given for this but they include the fear of an over-reaction by parents, further bullying if the perpetrator finds out that they have been reported, and a worry from the victim that they will have devices confiscated or be banned from using certain sites.

An 11-year-old boy recently explained that he was being cyberbullied but that he hadn't reported this to anyone as he knew that if someone investigated they would probably see that he had also said some quite unpleasant things at the outset.

Many parents admit that threatening to confiscate a mobile device or tablet is an effective way of getting children to do what you want them to do. However, if this fear of confiscation means that children and young people are reluctant to tell someone then this is problematic as they very often need support and guidance.

The cases of Hannah Smith and others like her highlight the turmoil that young people can feel which can often be exacerbated by online communities and social networking platforms. However, these spaces can also provide support and comfort to individuals too. What is clear is that we need to do more to support young people who are struggling; we all need to take a collective responsibility to stand up to this sort of negative behaviour. Freedom of speech and expressing an opinion is fine but personal attacks on individuals are not and, rather than turning away, we need to voice our concerns and report abuse. An excellent video from the Irish Safer Internet Centre (SIC) highlights the challenges and urges young people to do the right thing, be responsible and support others.

The role of platform providers
The main social media providers are taking steps to combat cyberbullying and online harassment on their platforms. Although still far from perfect, much has changed in recent years, for instance mute functions are now available on Twitter to allow users to block tweets based on keywords, phrases and the content of conversations from a user's notifications. Similarly, Facebook have developed a bullying prevention hub on the platform which helps teens, parents and educators deal with bullying behaviour and its consequences.

Perhaps part of the challenge, however, is that regular users don't seem to worry about any of this until it actually happens to them and becomes a problem. Talking to children and young people in schools about cyberbullying is often quite abstract and met with responses of "not this again…", but they do need to know about the tools available to them when they go online that are much more sophisticated than simply reporting abuse. In addition to blocking and muting, users can moderate comments and curate content so that they don't have to see posts and comments from specific individuals. All of the platforms offer support services and this is typically much more refined and bespoke than simply reporting the offensive content.

If users make a report online, the service providers will ask for as much information as possible about why something is being reported in order to get a sense of the context. It is important for users to recognise that there can be content which is not illegal and which does not breach the terms and conditions of a site, but which can nonetheless be particularly harmful and upsetting to an individual.

There is a wealth of information about the main platforms and social networks on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal in the Guide to online services. Awareness centres and helplines in the Insafe network also meet regularly with Facebook, Twitter, Google, ASKfm and others to try to better understand what is happening on social media platforms and how to provide good support for children and young people.

Supporting schools with educational resources
Schools clearly have an important role to play in educating children and young people about cyberbullying (and indeed dealing with incidents if they occur), and the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres (SICs) has developed a range of educational resources and campaigns to help. We highlight some here:

  • The Luxembourg Safer Internet Centre has produced an activity to help pupils to understand how different people will interpret the same comment in different ways; something which is crucial if they are to have empathy with others and their feelings. The Barometer of violence is a simple yet highly effective resource which is available in English, French, German, Greek and Portuguese. Pupils are given a card with a short description of a situation on it. They look at the statement and then decide where to place the card on the "barometer" depending on how they think they would feel. They can place the card anywhere from feeling "not hurt at all" to "very much hurt". The realisation that different pupils interpret the same statement in so many ways and the understanding that it has a different impact is very powerful.
  • The German Safer Internet Centre, klicksafe, has teamed up with a multi-level programme Conflict-CULTURE to develop a new resource on cyberbullying which focuses on systemic intervention and prevention in schools. This new resource merges, for the first time, fields otherwise treated separately – namely, prevention of violence, bullying intervention and media education – into interdisciplinary instruction materials about intervention methods and systemic conflict management in schools. The new handbook is intended as a contribution towards a professional response, enabling children and adolescents to avoid suffering and to develop pro-socially.
  • The UK Safer Internet Centre recently published some guidance for schools on behalf of the UK government. Cyberbullying: understand, prevent and respond contains useful information about how schools should deal with the complex issues. The guidance was developed in consultation with experts, schools and young people to provide practical and evidence-based strategies.
  • Recognising that responding to the bullying is not solely an issue for schools, the French Safer Internet Centre highlights the challenges that parents face in understanding and dealing with cyberbullying when it happens to their children. As such, it has produced five short videos which allow parent to begin a dialogue with their children in a resource titled "Parents let's talk about it!"

Further information and resources from European SICs on tackling cyberbullying can be found in the Resource gallery and Video gallery on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal. Equally, the BIK Guide to online services provides a range of top tips for using the main online services safely and responsibly.

Supporting children and young people directly
In addition to providing information and resources as outlined above, each Safer Internet Centre in the Insafe network has a helpline which offers support for children and young people (and, in some cases, their teachers and parents) about any online issues. Cyberbullying accounts for around 18 per cent of all contacts made and helplines have developed considerable expertise in dealing with this issue and providing the best support and guidance, often working alongside other agencies and support services to do this.

The two examples below give an indication of the types of cases that helplines are dealing with regularly.

"A member of staff from a primary school called the helpline to discuss an ongoing peer-to-peer cyberbullying incident involving two 11-year-old pupils. Abusive messages which included racist insults were being shared via WhatsApp. The pupil receiving the messages was not particularly upset by what was happening and appeared to be quite resilient. Fortunately, the bullying was only taking place online and was not a problem during the school day. As the pupil sending the messages was already known to the authorities (for other safeguarding concerns) the helpline counsellor advised that a referral should be made and that the situation should be monitored. They also explained that pupils should be 13 in order to use WhatsApp and comply with their terms and conditions."

"A 16-year-old girl contacted a helpline and explained that another girl had uploaded photos of her to Facebook and then made some sexually-explicit comments about them. The girl who called was very distressed and spoke about feeling suicidal. She wanted support from the helpline to remove the photos and the comments. Helpline counsellors were able to help with this and also provide advice and guidance about how to deal with the situation."

Helplines note that, very often, young people find it difficult to discuss some of these issues with parents, carers and teachers, primarily because of the nature of the content but also because they fear an over-reaction which could mean a ban from using a particular platform or the confiscation of a device.

Further information on the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres, including contact information for helplines and other services by country, can be found here. Further information on helpline trends can be found here.

In conclusion
Cyberbullying remains a significant challenge but there is no doubt that there is an ever-increasing amount of resources and support for schools and others to tackle the problem. Although resilience is part of this (and there is much discussion about cyber-wellness at present), it is also important that everyone plays their part in challenging this type of behaviour online. Ongoing collaboration between industry, awareness raisers, educators, parents and young users themselves is vital and will lead to improved reporting mechanisms and a greater awareness of what can be done to tackle the problem.

We've only been able to touch upon some of the issues surrounding cyberbullying in this article, but it's a theme that we revisit time and time again on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal, so do visit often.

View the full March 2017 edition of the BIK bulletin.

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