This is the soundtrack to life in the 21st century. Access to smart phones, tablets and wi-fi has changed how we behave, communicate and engage with the world. For children and young people, the online world can provide so much opportunity to learn, develop new skills and interact with others. However, it may also be a risky space for children due to the content they can access, the contacts they make and how they treat each other. Bullying online or ‘cyberbullying’ is the latest manifestation of how children can experience bullying. The Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum describes cyberbullying as:
“Bullying that takes place through electronic technologies such as mobile or smart phones, smart phone apps, social network websites and gaming consoles”.
These online platforms may be used to carry out traditional bullying behaviours such as name calling, social isolation, spreading rumours and harassment. In this way, cyberbullying can be seen as a new avenue for bullying rather than a completely separate issue. Rates of cyberbullying experienced by children are hard to quantify due to differences in definition, measurement and age groups involved. Drawing from research in 2017, reported rates of cyberbullying experienced by children and young people in the UK may vary from 3 percent to 17 percent. However, we do know that cyberbullying is an issue of increasing concern for children as ChildLine has received a 12 percent increase in calls on the subject in 2016/17.
The difference between cyberbullying and more traditional methods of bullying is an important area for parents and other adults to understand in order to create ways to prevent and respond to cyberbullying. Research carried out in Northern Ireland by Kernaghan and Elwood (2013) suggested that while it may be easier to use technology as a way to bully others, it may cause greater distress for the target than more conventional forms of bullying. The nature of the internet as a space for interactions makes bullying online different from face-to-face bullying in five key ways:
No Escape: Online interactions can take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike more traditional types of methods, the target may experience bullying via text, phone call, comments or images on social networking sites and other ways any time of the day. This can happen when the child is alone or in places that they are physically safe. This adds to children’s anxiety and causes them to feel that they cannot escape cyberbullying.
Permanent: Items posted or uploaded online can be very difficult to retrieve and delete. The permanent nature that text, videos or photographs have compared to the spoken word may mean that a young person relives a bullying incident many times or may be reminded of this by others at a later date.
Larger Audience: Online spaces provide the opportunity for large numbers of people to view comments, pictures and videos. It is quick and easy to send screenshots, videos and photos to a large audience through group chats and messenger apps. This characteristic of the internet may result in greater humiliation of the target compared to bullying in a physical space as more people are involved in the process.
Unknown Bully: Some children have more technical abilities than others. With the rise of anonymous apps such as Sarahah or Secret, children can make online comments to others anonymously. Some children also have the ability to create fake accounts to ‘troll’ or bully others online. In these ways, the bully has the potential to hide their identity. As a result, online exchanges can be nastier than face to face due to the physical distance between the bully and target. It can also increase the fear of the target as they are unsure who the bully is.
Low Parental Presence: We know that bullying tends to thrive in areas with low adult supervision. Unlike the physical spaces that children use, some platforms in cyberspace have little or no supervision by adults. This may leave children with the feeling of being alone and unable to access support.
How Can Adults Help?
The internet is a feature of modern childhood and parents and adults need to understand both the risks and opportunities this poses for children. Children need guidance in how to act online in order to keep them safe and to reduce harm that they could cause others by cyberbullying. You may find the following advice helpful when thinking about how to guide your child online:
Take Time to Talk: Take an interest in how your child spends their time online. Find out the types of online platforms that your child likes to use and who they are communicating with. Listen to how they talk about online interactions and let them know that they can talk to you about online behaviours they have found worrying. The NIABF Parent/Carer Toolkit has helpful tips on how to open conversations and what to say to your children around all aspects of bullying behaviour.
Model Good Behaviour: Children often follow by example. It is important that your online behaviour provides a good example. One way to ensure your online interactions are not harmful to others is to T.H.I.N.K. before you type. It is:
Report: Cyberbullying can cause children great distress. Make sure you know how take steps to block and report those conducting cyberbullying on social media platforms and consider whether is it appropriate to contact the PSNI.
If you are worried about a cyber bullying incident, you may find it helpful to talk to someone about it before deciding what action to take. You can call the Parenting NI helpline on 0808 8010 722.
Dr Donna Kernaghan is a member of Northern Ireland Anti Bullying Forum and the Research and Policy Officer for Barnardo’s Northern Ireland. To find out more about Barnardo’s Northern Ireland click here