Cyberbullying and online safety during Covid-19 emergency
Tijana Milosevic, Postdoctoral researcher,
National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, Dublin City University
The fast, surprising and unpredictable spread of the Covid-19 virus globally has turned our lives upside down, seemingly overnight. This situation has demonstrated the importance of technology in our lives as both school and work swiftly went digital. Nonetheless, with a growing reliance on smartphones and as all socialization now takes place via Skype, Zoom, Instagram, WhatsApp and various other apps, it is important to revisit some of the risks that children and young people can encounter online, among them cyberbullying, sexting, risks to privacy, exposure to potentially harmful content as well as the less known issue of self-victimization online.
- Cyberbullying typically refers to a repeated harm inflicted using digital technology. It can also involve power imbalance, e.g. the perpetrator can be more popular than the person who is being targeted or he or she can, for instance, have greater social capital in the form of followers or likes on their posts. Key aspects include that there is an intent to hurt someone and repetition itself can take many forms: one can receive multiple hurtful messages, or one mean message can be shared on various platforms—WhatsApp, Viber, or Twitter, for instance, allowing for the so-called spill over of cyberbullying on various apps. One hurtful post can be seen by many people, affording greater visibility to the process of humiliation.
- Exclusion can also be a form of cyberbullying. Consider the example where a group of three girls meet on Skype for a coffee chat and they take a photo of the group and post it to Instagram. They then choose to tag the fourth girl in the Instagram post which is a way for them to draw attention to the fact that she’d been intentionally excluded from the Skype coffee chat.
- Or, consider the example where a girl posts a video on Tik Tok (formerly Musical.ly) doing a fun choreography to her favourite tune, and someone uses the reaction option to post a reply video of themselves mocking her performance. Bullying through reaction videos can take place on YouTube as well.
- In any case, we should not automatically assume that there is a greater incidence of cyberbullying just because there is an increasing reliance on technology during the Covid epidemics. We do not yet have research on the prevalence of cyberbullying in Ireland during these extraordinary times. Take for example the EU Kids Online research which surveyed children in 2010 and then again in 2018/2019—there are examples of countries, such as Norway, where the use of digital technology among 9-16-year-olds increased between 2010 and 2018, but cyberbullying prevalence did not (Smahel et al., 2020).
- We’d like to remind the readers that our recent meta-analysis of all published cyberbullying studies in Ireland found a cyber-victimisation rate of 13.7% for primary and 9.6% for post-primary students (Foody, Samara, & O’Higgins Norman, 2017). Our study of over two thousand adolescents in Ireland aged between 12-16 years old found that certain elements such as being female, having poor friendship quality and being involved in cyberbullying were associated with higher emotional problems and self-reported depression (Foody, McGuire, Kuldas & O’Higgins Norman, 2019).
What can parents and educators do?
- Try to have conversations with your child or children in your class about their perceptions about cyberbullying during Covid epidemics. Have they noticed a rise or decline in cyberbullying since the onset of the Covid situation? Try to elicit a conversation about why this might be the case and what cyberbullying looks like on various platforms.
- Since many children who are victimized tend not to report their victimization to adults, it might be best not to ask them if they have been victimized—they may not be willing to admit to that or talk about it. Rather, try to start the conversation in more general terms. For example, have you seen cyberbullying among your peers and what does it look like? How do you feel about it? Try to notice any changes in your child’s behaviour. If they are unusually withdrawn or appear to be anxious, that might be a good reason to check in with them and try to initiate a discussion about it.
- You might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of new apps that your child or the children in your class are using. Check out the App Watch section on our TackleBullying.ie website to get familiarized with some of the new apps and you can use that to start the conversation about them with children.
- Have you heard of Houseparty? The video chat and gaming app is growing in popularity, apparently fuelled by the most recent lack of physical contact, especially among teens and young people. Go to TackleBullying.ie for more information.
- Take a look at the resources for parents and teachers provided via ABC’s FUSE project which aims to help educators with addressing bullying and cyberbullying: https://antibullyingcentre.ie/fuse/resources/guides/
- Would you like to help your child report something on social media but you are not sure how to do it on a specific platform? Many popular social media platforms have special sections of their websites where you can become familiar with how to report, with many other helpful tips. They are typically called Safety Centres, see, e.g. here: https://about.instagram.com/community/parents#privacy and https://www.facebook.com/safety and https://help.instagram.com/285881641526716
- Some of the services working on digital wellbeing have produced valuable resources for parents, young people and teachers, check out the work of SpunOut: https://spunout.ie/ and the new digital media literacy program by Webwise called Connected: https://www.webwise.ie/connected/
- Click here for advice for Parents, Free Training on Bullying, and Advice and Resources.