Counselling Chronicle (4)
Internet and Technology Addictions – Cyberbullying
In the final of a three-part series on problematic use of the internet and/or technology, this issue of the Counselling Chronicle discusses cyberbullying.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is defined as targeted and persistent hostile or aggressive behaviour, performed by an individual or group, using electronic or digital media with the aim to inflict harm. Cyberbullying can occur in many ways, including:
- abusive texts and emails
- hurtful messages, images or videos
- imitating others online
- excluding others online
- humiliating others online
- nasty online gossip and chat.
How does cyberbullying differ to “traditional” bullying
Expanded bullying repertoire which now may include identity theft, account hacking, infecting a person’s computer, impersonation, harassment, posting embarrassing content.
- Greater anonymity through the use of fake profiles or anonymous messages, which can lead to the bully feeling immune and increased viciousness of attacks.
- Easier access to victims, and reduced availability of protection for victims.
- It is difficult for the victim to escape the bullying if they use technology often.
- The harm and humiliation felt by the victim has the potential to be widely distributed and known to more people.
- Bullying content is near-impossible to delete once it is online, due the sharing and “screenshotting” capabilities of the internet.
Why do people cyberbully others?
While the reasons individuals bully others are varied and personal, research has been undertaken on common reasons why cyberbullies commence and continue with their behaviour. Studies have found that, when compared to non-perpetrators, cyberbullying perpetrators have higher rates of depression, anxiety (particularly social anxiety), alcohol abuse, smoking, antisocial behaviour, poor social skills, and suicidal behaviour. Cyberbullies may therefore bully as a way to redirect their own negative feelings. Cyberbullies also typically report high levels of stress and the absence of a social support system, making it more likely for bullies to channel frustration and anger into outward aggression in the form of cyberbullying. A number of cyberbullies are also previous victims of aggression/bullying, a phenomenon called “bully-victims”.
Psychological consequences of cyberbullying
Victims of cyberbullying are much more likely than non-victims, to experience:
- symptoms of depression
- internalised anger, and/or aggressive behaviour
- low self-esteem
- social anxiety
- higher rates of school absenteeism
- reduced academic performance
- increased somatic complaints, e.g. headaches, stomach aches.
Legal consequences of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying can become a crime under either NSW or federal law when it involves:
- Using the internet or a phone in a threatening, harassing or offensive way. This offense carries a maximum penalty of 3 years in gaol.
- Threats or intimidation. Threatening to kill someone carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in gaol. It is also a crime to make threats of physical harm to a person or their property because of their race, religion, transgender identity, sexual orientation or HIV/AIDS status. The maximum penalty is 6 months in gaol.
- Stalking (including messaging someone to harm or scare them). Stalking is a crime in NSW if the intent is to cause the victim to fear for their safety, the maximum penalty is 5 years in gaol.
- Accessing internet accounts without permission. It is a crime under state and national law to log into a person’s online accounts without permission. The maximum penalty is 2 years in gaol.
- Defamation (spreading lies to intentionally damage someone’s reputation). Maximum penalty is 3 years in gaol.
- Encouraging suicide. It is a crime under both NSW and national law to cyberbully someone in a way that intentionally encourages or causes them to kill themselves. The maximum penalty is 5 years in jail.
In addition to potentially facing legal charges, cyberbullies can face civil court actions, and risk warnings and suspensions from websites and/or internet or telecommunication service providers.
How to recognise if your child is being cyberbullied
Cyberbullying is difficult for researchers to obtain accurate statistics on, but estimates suggests between 20-40% of children and adolescents have been victims of cyberbullying, and up to 35% of adolescents have perpetrated a cyberbullying attack. Some signs that your child may be being cyberbullied might include:
- being upset after using the internet or their mobile phone
- changes in personality, becoming more withdrawn, anxious, sad or angry
- appearing more lonely or distressed
- unexpected changes in friendship groups
- a decline in their school work
- changes in their sleep patterns
- avoidance of school or clubs
- a decline in their physical health
- becoming secretive about their online activities and mobile phone use.
What to do if your child is being cyberbullied
- Encourage your child to NOT respond to the cyberbully.
- Take screenshots of the cyberbullying as evidence.
- Block the cyberbully on social media and/or their phone number. Change privacy on social media to prevent non-friends from contacting your child or seeing their social media account.
- Report the abuse to social media service or telecommunications service, using the screenshots as evidence to support your complaint.
- Report cyberbullying to the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner if the social media service fails to remove the material within 48 hours of you reporting it to them.
- Report the cyberbullying to the police if you believe the cyberbullying constitutes a criminal act (see above list of legal consequences of cyberbullying). You can also apply for an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) through your local police station to prevent your child from experiencing continued attempts to harm by the cyberbully.
- Open the lines of communication between you and your children. This includes encouraging them to share information and concerns with you, as well as monitoring their internet and technology use (see Issue 2 of Counselling Chronicle for some suggestions).
- Increase privacy settings on social media.
- Do not share private information like passwords, photos, name and address, phone numbers with people you don’t know.
- Don’t respond to messages when angry or hurt – either to strangers and also to people you know. Follow up when you are calmer. Seek clarification in person if there is a risk you have misinterpreted the situation.
- Log out and stop messaging if you feel you are being harassed. Resist the urge to compulsively check your social media account for further messages.
- Have a conversation with your child about avoiding cyberbullying. This conversation may include
- reminding your child that things can be misinterpreted online. Sarcasm and tone are not well-communicated online. It is probably better to have difficult conversations in person, rather than online, to reduce the likelihood of misinterpreting or being misinterpreted.
- being mindful of whom you involve in an argument. It is not kind to screenshot and share your argument with others, or hit “reply all” when a conversation should be private. These behaviours could easily be interpreted as cyberbullying.
- Get permission from your friends before posting photos or videos of them.
- Encourage your children to stand up for others whom they witness being cyberbullied, and to report this to an adult who can help.
How can I stop my child from cyberbullying others?
Finding out your child is bullying others can be very painful, but you can help them develop better ways of interacting socially. You might like to adopt the following strategies:
- Help develop your child’s social skills, perhaps by joining extracurricular activities or sporting teams.
- Encourage your child to talk to you about any problems they are experiencing, and help them problem-solve this with your assistance.
- Talk about how it feels to be left out or teased in a manner that they can relate to.
- Encouraging your child to be honest about their behaviour and apologise to those they have bullied.
- Talk about accepting differences and how to better deal with people who they don’t get along with.
- Model appropriate ways of dealing with people who are challenging, perhaps by using examples from your life, e.g. a difficult colleague or relative.
- Emphasise that until they show that they are able to handle the responsibility of the internet and technology, as their parent, you will have to help them manage their online time by reduced access and increased monitoring.
- Identify activities where your child can be successful or feel good about themselves, such as membership of a sports club or an art class.
- Praise your child’s strengths and any behaviour changes they try to make.
- Spend one-on-one time with your child, such as watching a movie, playing sport together or cooking with them.
- As many cyberbullies fall into the “bully-victim” category, it may be worth seeking external support from a GP or psychologist to explore whether your child may be experiencing any mental health difficulties which are being expressed as cyberbullying behaviours.
Management of cyberbullying
The reduction and management of cyberbullying necessitates a societal response and effort to curb aggressive behaviours. There are a number of ways to approach cyberbullying, and a combination may be most effective:
- Boosting knowledge – raising awareness of cyberbullying, why it occurs, and the consequences of cyberbullying.
- Bolstering social responsibility and social skills – teaching young people how to treat each other respectfully and solve conflicts calmly.
- Promoting safe and satisfying online experiences – encouraging young people to use technology in positive and safe ways. This may involve a number of parental limits on internet and technology use until young people develop the necessary skills to make smart choices about social media and interactions with other people (see Issue 2 of Counselling Chronicle for further information)
- Boosting competence and empowerment by focusing on increasing resilience in young people. Increasing resilience will involve the teaching and modelling of strategies to promote healthy emotion regulation and helpful coping skills for dealing with stress and adversity.
- Consequences for inappropriate behaviour
- Schools, like Chevalier College, have wide-reaching anti-bullying, anti-discrimination and IT policies, coupled with procedures for dealing with bullying.
- As cyberbullying typically occurs outside of the school environment, it is important for parents to be involved in reducing their own child’s risk of exposure to cyberbullying, or perpetrating it themselves (whether by starting the aggression or merely passing bullying material on).
Parents should report incidents of cyberbullying to the police and/or the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner.