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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

  • 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.

Sexting

  • Sexting refers to the exchange of texts, photos or videos containing sexually explicit content. If two young people are in a relationship, exchange of these can be a part of the relationship process. Teens can also text nudes to each other in an attempt to elicit romantic interest with a person they like, and many teens indeed receive sexual messages that they do not wish to receive. The Anti-Bullying Centre has recently finished a study where we found that 44% of our 15-18-year-old sample said they received sexually explicit images without asking for or wanting them (majority of these were female). More than a half (57%) had been asked in the past to share a sexual image of themselves. However, only 24% said that they actually sent sexual photos to others online (nearly equal across males and females). Most of this sharing happened among peers (children of similar age).
  • One issue with sexting is that the sexting photo can be shared with other young people which can result in bullying and cyberbullying. In the above-mentioned study, we found that 13% had a sexual image shared without their consent.
  • Consider that if a relationship ends badly, one party might share the photo with a wider audience out of spite or revenge. Peer pressure might lead to someone showing the photo to a broader audience of friends, resulting in privacy breaches. This can all lead to “slut-shaming” which is a serious issue for girls and it is a form of bullying. Boys can be bullied in this way too. It can leave serious psychological consequences with more vulnerable children, which is why it is important to ensure that young people are aware of the implications before they engage in sexting.
  • Sexting is a distinctive issue from grooming, which is a serious problem whereby an adult engages in conversations with minors online with the intent to exploit them, typically sexually. This often includes deceit— the adult may pretend to be younger than they actually are or lie about their gender and solicit nudes. This is a serious problem, along with the streaming of child sexual abuse material on various online platforms. This is why it is important to ensure that children are aware of this in order to be mindful of this fact when they engage with strangers online. It is also important not to panic: Most likely the “stranger” your child engages with in online gaming, for instance, is a friend of a friend or someone from a peer group, rather than a predator. Furthermore, social media platforms have increasingly effective mechanisms in place to identify child pornography, even proactively (before these are reported).

What can parents and educators do?

  • Try to discuss sexting with your teen or teens in your class to see to what extent they are aware of it and if they are open to share their attitudes about the issue. Try to discuss the consequences without being a priori dismissive or judgemental of the issue. Remember that sexual exploration is part of adolescent development. Discuss bullying and privacy violations as a possible consequence of sexting and especially the problem with slut shaming and how it violates children’s dignity. 
  • As so many young people are sexting, some researchers are now recommending that parents and teachers talk to them about safe sexting. Our colleagues, internationally recognized bullying researchers Prof. Sameer Hinduja and Prof. Justin Patchin, explain in their article how to teach teens to sext safely (if they really feel strongly about sexting).
  • When it comes to grooming, it is important not to approach children and especially teens with a stranger-danger narrative which emphasizes that predators are lurking everywhere (many children would not experience grooming). Children may be dismissive of such a panicky attitude and see it as parental or teachers’ exaggeration. Rather, try to point out that this problem exists, and while it may not be so likely that it would happen to them, they should be mindful of it in order to be able to recognize the warning signs should they happen.
  • Click here for advice for Parents, Free Training on Bullying, and Advice and Resources.

Harmful online content

  • Young people can find all sorts of content online and unfortunately it is not uncommon to find gory images or videos (e.g. torturing of animals or even people), other gruesome photos or videos or terrorist content. While social media platforms would normally remove these, they might still linger on some platforms if they are not removed in time; teens can encounter them elsewhere or even actively look for these. Such content can be disturbing for some, especially younger or more psychologically vulnerable children. 
  • According to the EU Kids Online study in 19 European countries (which currently does not include data for Ireland), on average children age 12-16 saw the following types of content at least monthly: Ways of physically harming or hurting themselves (10%), ways of committing suicide (8%), hate speech and hateful messages that attack certain groups or individuals (17%), ways to be very thin, so-called pro-ana content (12%), gory or violent images (13%); their experiences with taking drugs (11%).

What can parents or educators do?

  • While you can engage with parental controls or some form of monitoring software, especially if you have a younger child, it might be better to have regular conversations and try to build a relationship of trust where the child will be willing to talk to you if something has upset or bothered them online. 
  • The level of upset after seeing this content varies among children—some may not be upset at all and others might be very upset. Younger children may be more likely to be upset than older children.
  • It is also important to recognize that some children might be actively seeking such content out. For instance, girls especially, but boys too, could actively look for support groups, sometimes on social media, like Instagram for their efforts to be very thin or anorexic. In such cases, if a child has a problem of this kind it is important to find the right way to approach it, including seeking help from a counsellor, rather than threatening banning access to social media platforms where the child’s support group might be. Such threats might make the child less likely to share their concerns with you in the future for the fear of banning access to social media. It is important to recognize that there may be a deeper, underlying issue involved that requires more layered assistance.
  • Click here for advice for Parents, Free Training on Bullying, and Advice and Resources.

Self-cyberbullying/self-victimization/fictitious digital victimization or self-harm

  • This is a relatively understudied phenomenon where even the terminology has not coalesced yet. Nonetheless, it refers to the process where some children post hurtful messages to themselves online pretending to be someone else. In other words, they give out an illusion of being cyberbullied while in fact they are posting this themselves. One well known case in the UK a few years ago where a girl unfortunately passed away by suicide, involved this behaviour—everyone thought it had been cyberbullying until after the coroner’s report, which revealed it had been self-cyberbullying.
  • The child who engages in this behaviour might be doing it for attention, as a joke or it might be a sign of deep suffering. A study with middle and high school students in the US found that 6% of the sample engaged in self-victimization (Hinduja & Patchin, 2017).

What can parents and educators do?

  • Talk to your child or your class about whether they have heard about this phenomenon or witnessed the process, and what they think about it. Why might their peers engage in it?
  • If you discover that your child has posted hurtful posts about themselves under the guise of someone else, try to approach them so as to understand what the underlying motive for such behaviour is—if it is for fun or to elicit attention. This might be a symptom of a larger underlying problem where the child engages in this behaviour as a remedy for the lack of attention or adequate relationships with their peers.
  • Click here for advice for Parents, Free Training on Bullying, and Advice and Resources.
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