Children and young people greatly value the ways in which technology enables them to communicate with other people and make connections. Sadly, not all behaviour is positive online and cyberbullying is a problem that has persisted for many years since people first started communicating over the internet.
This module will explore what cyberbullying is, how it can occur and what you need to know about it to support your learners, in terms of education, child protection and pastoral care. There will also be an opportunity to consider your approach to teaching about online bullying and other hateful or harmful behaviours.
What is cyberbullying?
One of the first challenges faced by any teacher wanting to understand cyberbullying is how to define the nature of this behaviour. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2021) defines cyberbullying as “the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages about a person (such as a student) often done anonymously” and suggests the first recorded use of this term was in 1998, though it is likely that this behaviour existed between technology users prior to this date.
Various academics and researchers have defined cyberbullying differently – some have applied various contexts and factors to their definition, while others have taken definitions of traditional (offline) bullying and applied them to the online space. Some core characteristics that may be applied to cyberbullying include intention, repetition, a power imbalance, a sense of anonymity, use of electronic/digital technology, accountability (a lack of), and publicity. Some definitions also distinguish between direct cyberbullying (for example, offensive messages sent directly to another person online with the intention of upsetting them) and indirect cyberbullying, where the target isn’t aware of the behaviour (spreading rumours about them or publishing private personal details online for others to see).
Before continuing, take a moment to think about how you would define cyberbullying. It might be useful to consider it in the context of the children/young people you work with, as well as the factors outlined above.
If you have the opportunity, ask your students to define cyberbullying. Do their definitions match those of their peers? Do their definitions align with yours? Could you come to an agreed definition with your students?
A useful working definition of cyberbullying
The KID_ACTIONS project suggests the following working definition can be helpful as it encompasses many of the factors already described:
“Cyberbullying refers to intentional and repeated harm that others inflict via a digital device” (Hinduja and Patchin, 2009).
What forms can cyberbullying take?
Cyberbullying can be challenging to define, and this is due in no small part to the many forms in which this behaviour may be displayed online and through technology. The following activity is a useful thought exercise to help you consider the ways in which your students could be affected by cyberbullying.
Note: This activity involves exploring the ways in which cyberbullying can occur online. Depending on personal experiences, this activity may be uncomfortable or upsetting for you to engage with. It is recommended that you approach this activity with care, and consider carefully how you would implement it in a classroom setting too.
- Imagine there are no limits, how could a person bully someone else online and through technology?
- Consider different forms of digital media, online spaces and communication (such as images, photos, videos, audio, websites, apps, games, personal messages, public spaces, etc.).
You may have found this activity challenging! For most people, active consideration of how to mistreat, upset or harm others is not something that comes naturally. However, you may have identified some methods that are relevant to your students; either some that they may be vulnerable to, or methods that you feel they would be capable of carrying out if they wanted to bully a peer.
Being aware of – and making your students aware of – the ways that someone can be cyberbullied can be helpful in several ways. Greater awareness can help children and young people carefully consider the online spaces that they inhabit, and the behaviour of users in those spaces. While it tends to be obvious to someone when they are being bullied (based on how they are being made to feel), it can be harder to recognise when someone is bullying someone else. Understanding the forms cyberbullying can take can help your students to spot when someone else might need help and support online.
If you have time, try ranking your cyberbullying methods in different ways, such as from most common to least common, or most harmful to least harmful.
What other sorts of behaviours are recognised as cyberbullying?
Pozza et al (2016) outlined a number of different behaviours that could be considered as forms of cyberbullying:
Figure 1: Behaviours that may be considered cyberbullying, Pozza et al (2016)
Take a moment to consider which of these behaviours might be common or possible among the groups of children/young people you work with. Keep in mind that your students might use games, apps and online services that allow them to interact with users older than themselves, so some of these behaviours might be present or possible in those online spaces.
How common is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying (and bullying in general) is not a new phenomenon, but it is sadly a persistent risk that can be faced by online users (both child and adult).
Research studies report a wide range of prevalence of cyberbullying among youth and different studies may give very different numbers based on a number of factors such as sample size and type, methodology, and how cyberbullying is measured or defined.
However, many studies put youth cyberbullying in the region of 10-25 per cent. The table below in Figure 2 from EU Kids Online (2020) shows self-reported cyberbullying by youth with an average prevalence rate of 14 per cent, although you can see by country breakdown that there are wide variations between different countries (such as Poland – 26 per cent, compared to Italy – 5 per cent).
Figure 2: Online bullying by country, EU Kids Online (2020)
The Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres operates helplines for educators, youth and parents/caregivers to seek help and advice with online safety concerns. Figure 3 shows a quarterly report from 2022 that highlights the continued concern around cyberbullying incidents involving youth, with 14 per cent of helpline contacts related to bullying issues.
Figure 3: Reasons for contacting Insafe helplines between July-September 2022
Although figures vary from study to study, all research and statistics point to cyberbullying as a persistent issue that affects youth.
Why do people cyberbully?
There are a number of different reasons why someone (child or adult) may choose to bully someone else online.
- An extension of bullying offline – shifting the behaviour online allows a bully to target someone at any time of day or night, and from any geographical location. It also allows them to abuse or harass someone multiple times very quickly, whether through repeated behaviour on one app or platform, or a wide-ranging attack across multiple online platforms and services.
- Seeking ‘revenge’ on someone who they believed has wronged them.
- Treating someone else badly in order to make the bully feel ‘better’ about themselves.
- Displacement – some bullies are the victim of bullying themselves and seek to displace their feelings about their own abuse by targeting someone else with the same behaviour.
- Perceiving bullying to be ‘fun’ or a game; being online (and sometimes anonymous) can disinhibit people to see cyberbullying behaviour as ‘not real’.
- A lack of engagement in, or understanding of, morals, emotions and empathy.
- Joining in with the bullying behaviour by others in order to conform to social norms or ‘fit in’.
- An attempt to get attention from other users.
- A targeted attack on an individual or a group motivated by dislike or hatred for personal characteristics (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). In these cases, bullying would also be considered hate speech and (if inciting violence) possibly also a hate crime.
What do my students need to know about cyberbullying?
It is important to discuss with children and young people about the nature of cyberbullying, the impact it can have, and the ways in which it can be prevented and responded to, by individuals, communities, organisations and society.
One approach to educating students about cyberbullying is to focus on these themes and questions under these three key areas:
- Understanding cyberbullying – What is cyberbullying? How does it make people feel? Why and how do people bully? Is cyberbullying against the law?
- Preventing cyberbullying – What is positive and respectful communication online? What is the role of privacy? What is the difference between bullying and ‘banter’? How do we manage online conflict and disagreement? What are the positive norms we want in our digital lives? What is the role of the school in preventing cyberbullying?
- Responding to cyberbullying – How can someone get help online? What tools are there to help users? How do we encourage people to intervene or to seek help? How do we resolve a cyberbullying issue? What is the role of the school in responding to cyberbullying?
The KID_ACTIONS Educational toolkits provide activities for teachers to run with students aged 11+, with activities that directly tie into the key themes outlined above. There are also guidance documents for educators on how to tackle this area.
What advice should I give my students about dealing with cyberbullying?
A key part of educating youth about cyberbullying is to help them develop and use strategies for managing tricky situations online, and to know how to get help when things go wrong.
The following is useful advice for your students about what to do if they or someone they know is being cyberbullied:
- Tell someone – Reaching out to a trusted adult (such as a parent/caregiver or teacher) is crucial to ensure that a young person gets the help and support they need to tackle a cyberbullying issue. In many European countries, youth can also ring 116 111 to receive support from a helpline. Alternatively, contact information for Safer Internet Centres across Europe can be found here. All offer helpline services.
- Don’t retaliate – It can be tempting for children and young people to treat a bully in the same way that they are being treated – to be abusive and hurtful back. However, this usually makes the situation worse and can lead to them also being labelled as a bully when they were acting in self-defence.
- Save the evidence – Using screenshots and video capture tools to save proof of a bully’s actions is an important step. This can ensure that evidence can be passed to a trusted adult, law enforcement (if laws have been broken) and online services in order to take informed action against a bully’s behaviour.
- Use online tools – Tools such as blocking and reporting can prevent a bully from contacting their intended target, and alert online services that a user is in breach of the rules or community standards. Using other tools such as privacy settings can empower a user to manage their personal information and contact with other users.
What else can I do?
Many cyberbullying incidents take place away from school but directly affect the safety and well-being of your students. In order to help and support them, consider the following:
- What is my school’s approach to tackling bullying? – Take time to make yourself familiar with your school’s policies and procedures for managing bullying incidents, and any educational programmes or schemes that are used with students.
- Where can I get help? – Consider who you would contact in school to help support any students involved in cyberbullying incidents (as targets or perpetrators). Identify other sources of help such as local law enforcement, helplines and NGOs that might provide further assistance.
- What can I do in the classroom to promote positive and respectful behaviour? – It can be tempting to only teach about online issues when something has gone wrong, but a proactive approach to online safety education is key. Taking time to help your students explore and recognise the importance of positive and respectful communication and healthy relationships can help prevent issues from ever occurring.
Further information and resources
Want to learn more or educate your students about cyberbullying? These resources may be useful:
- CO:RE Evidence Base – A database of publications and research on youth online experiences. Searching the database with ‘bullying’ or ‘cyberbullying’ allows you to browse and read relevant research related to this issue.
- Better Internet for Kids (BIK) resources – Educational resources from across the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres. You can search for ‘cyberbullying’ for resources in your language and for resources for different age groups.
- KID_ACTIONS – Information, research and educational materials for educators to work with their students on preventing, understanding and responding to cyberbullying.
- Safer Internet Centres – Safer Internet Centres across Europe provide a wealth of content and services to support children and young people, and those that care for them: parents and caregivers; teachers, educators and other professionals; and other stakeholders.