“I had a best friend and we got into this really big fight online,” says Emma, aged 14.1
In less than three minutes, Emma describes how a falling out between teenagers escalated into cyberbullying:
After an argument, Emma’s best friend began sending her nasty messages via both social media sites such as Facebook and text message. She would call Emma up to inform her about what a horrible person she was. Emma was then further humiliated in front of her classmates as her friend posted public defamatory comments about her.2
Though Emma’s case is typical, cyberbullying takes on many forms: hacking victims email and social media accounts to set them up; encouraging nasty public gossip and publicly sharing harmful content; creating hate social media pages and/or websites; sharing sexual images or videos without a person’s consent; and malicious anonymous posting.
What makes cyberbullying worse than regular bullying?
Cyberbullying is intense psychological bullying, controlling the victim not through physical violence but through words and isolation. As the case of Megan Meiers demonstrates, the sense of being alone behind the computer yet surrounded by bullies is an powerful psychological weapon. In 2007, a bitter mother was concerned that Megan was spreading rumours about her daughter, so the mother created a fake MySpace account and pretended to be a good looking boy named Josh Evans. “Josh” flirted with Megan and rapidly became her online boyfriend, until he publicly broke up with her and continuously insulted her on the site. Other MySpace users joined in the heckling and commented on the public bulletins. The mother, still disguised as Josh, sent Megan one final message telling her that the world would be a better place without her. Megan hanged herself in her bedroom closet.8
The effects of cyberbullying are made worse yet by the fact that the victim cannot get away from the bullies. Children use the internet for school work and research – not just social
media and gossip – and smartphones are used to arrange pickup times with parents. Moreover, even if a child closed all of their social media accounts to escape the bullies, their peers would still inform them of the latest publicly shared comments and images.
This social reach of social media also forces a spotlight on the victim. In Megan Meier’s case, it was not only “Josh” who was calling her “fat” it was everyone else on her MySpace page. Even those who did not join in could still see the conversations. This makes the victim feel incredibly exposed, as though everyone is looking at them.
The final problem is that cyberbullies use a child’s shame against them.For instance, teenager Amanda Todd flashed herself to an adult male on the internet. When the man asked her again to put on a sexual show for him Amanda said no. The man sent her picture to everyone that she knew and later made an entire Facebook group about her with the image of her breasts as its profile picture. Despite moving towns and changing schools several times, the bullies followed her via the internet. Eventually, Amanda killed herself.9 Similarly, 17 year old Daniel Perry committed suicide after being told to “deposit thousands of pounds in to an account or images or video of him would be shared with his family and friends or the public.”10 Shame is a powerful tool which bullies can use to both torment and blackmail their victims, preventing them from seeking help.
How do we deal with cyberbullying?
It can be tempting to take away the smartphone and the laptop, collect the various passwords and install some spyware, but anti-bullying campaigns recommend that this is not the best way to deal with cyberbullying. Instead the following measures should be taken:
Create secure passwords and do not leave online accounts permanently logged in. This will help stop the bullies from accessing their social media and email accounts.
Change privacy settings on social media sites. Increasing their privacy settings will limit the number of people who can view and interact with their content.
Encourage sensible sharing and the use of privacy software. Children need to understand about the repercussions of sending inappropriate messages and images. They also need to know the importance of safeguarding their online identity and privacy, and how to use good quality privacy software to protect themselves.
Block the bullies. Bullies can be easily blocked on social media sites like Facebook. Emails can also be blocked. Phone numbers can be blocked by contacting the telephone provider.
Report the bullying to the website. All of the big social media sites have a “report” function. With any luck, the bully will have their account closed and any humiliating groups or pages made will be taken down. Individual comments and images can also be reported and removed. Facebook is now taking steps to crack down on the bullies and ensures that all reports of bullying are anonymous so the bully won’t know who reported them. Not only does Facebook also have a helpful guide that explains how children can report bullies, they also have an entire section about how to deal with bullying on Facebook.
Encourage bystanders to report online abuse. One of the most effective ways to stop a bully is to have others stand up against them. There are a number of ways that children can be encouraged to do this: reporting offensive comments and photos to the websites; refusing to share, like or comment on those posts; and even publicly standing up for the victim (for instance, by highlighting that a nasty comment is uncalled for and morally wrong.)
Don’t respond. Log out. The best method for dealing with cyberbullies is to simply stop talking to them. Without a reaction, most so-called trolls and bullies will stop.
Collect the evidence. Take screenshots and print-outs of the comments. This will be vital if you need to talk to the school or even the police about the matter.
Support your child and encourage them to speak to a trusted adult. Many children do not feel comfortable disclosing information about their online world with their parents. Rebecca Todd and Daniel Reid’s bullies deliberately used their shame against them to prevent them from seeking help. Speaking to a family friend or a teacher could be a good alternative.
Although cyberbullying continues to be an ongoing problem for many children, there are now an equally growing number of campaigns and organisations, such as The Cybersmile Foundation, which are dedicated to offering support and advice for both parents and children. Not only educating the victims on the dangers of using the internet, but also working with bullies themselves to change their behaviour so that “this and further generations [can enjoy] a safe and positive digital future.”