Tip Sheets - Cyber Bullying

Information sheet for parents and carers.

‘Bullying’ is defined by Kids Helpline as the deliberate psychological, emotional and/or physical harassment of one person by another person (or group) at school or in transition between school and home. It can include exclusion from peer groups, intimidation, extortion, embarrassment, harassment and violence (or threats of violence).

‘Cyberbullying’ is an extended form of traditional bullying, the key difference being that the 'weapon' in cyber bullying cases involves new technology such as mobile phones and the internet. Research has shown that in many cases it is not an 'either or' for bullies, cyber bullying is simply another tool that bullies will use in addition to traditional bullying methods.

Many parents are caught by surprise when they hear about the variety and complexity of how cyber bullying can be perpetrated. Attacks can range from sending angry or rude messages, to repeated harassment, to cyber stalking and threats of harm, to deliberate and public denigration online, to masquerading as fake friends or even as the victim. Like traditional bullying, cyber bullying is done to purposely embarrass, exclude, demean and/or harass others. The anonymity of cyber technologies means that cyber bullies are often emboldened and the fear factor for victims can increase.[1]

What cyberbullying is not?

Some conflicts between children and young people are a normal part of growing up and are to be expected. Because of this, it is common for adults to mistake bullying and/or cyber bullying for normal childhood conflict. It can help to remember that bullying and cyber bullying are different from single instances of teasing or fighting as they involve deliberate harassment, plus the inappropriate use of power by one or more persons over another less powerful person (or group).

Why do people bully?

There are lots of different reasons people bully. Some reasons identified by young people include:

  • Perceived power and strength gained from bullying others
  • As a way to be popular and get known at school
  • Because they are scared, so they try to scare others to hide their feelings
  • Because they are unhappy and take it out on others, using it as a way to try and be happier
  • Because they were being bullied themselves

Where and how does cyberbullying occur?

A online study conducted in 2009 by BoysTown among 548 young people across Australia found the most typical forms of cyber bullying to include name calling, abusive comments, spreading rumours, threats of physical harm, being ignored or excluded, having opinions slammed, online impersonation and being sent rude or upsetting images.[2]

Cyber bullying can occur on websites, in blogs, emails, chats, instant messaging and text / digital image messaging via mobile devices. The most common cyber bullying situations reported in the research are shown in Figure 1 (NB: percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple instruments being used by a bully).

Figure 1. Frequency of cyberbullying methods

How prevalent is cyberbullying?

The incidence of cyber bullying is somewhat difficult to determine because of the different ways cyber bullying is defined (i.e. loose definitions which include all forms of cyber aggression and not just bullying). Under-reporting of the abuse is also a factor.

One national study conducted recently by Australia's Child Health Promotion Research Centre (CHPRC)[3] found that 7-10% of students aged Year 4 to 9 reported being cyber bullied. Other studies recorded the overall incidence of cyber bullying to be around 20% of young people.[4]

Much Australian research[5] suggests that cyber bullying most commonly occurs in late primary school and early high school. In 2009, Kids Helpline data supported this, with 10-14 year olds representing the most common age group to contact Kids Helpline regarding cyber bullying (50.6%). This was closely followed by 15-18 year olds (44.2%). Interestingly, data from 2010 counselling contacts showed a higher representation from 15-18 year olds instead of 10-14 year olds (47.6% compared to 37.8%).

While many of the dynamics remain the same across the ages, reports of cyber bullying in the primary school years usually focused on appearances while cyber bullying in the secondary years tended to focus on relationships and the way people act, especially if they do not fit the norm.

What are the impacts of cyberbullying?

The reactions many young people have to being cyber bullied are similar to those provoked by traditional bullying. However, because of cyber bullying's more covert nature, it has been suggested that cyber bullying may induce more severe reactions in children and young people than traditional bullying.[6][7] This is partly due to the fact that cyber bullying can involve the public humiliation or embarrassment of a child across a much wider (and viral) audience. In addition, the bullying behaviour can be more invasive as the bully can infiltrate the victim's home and privacy through the use of the internet and the mobile phone. Because cyber bullying can be done from a physically distant location, the bully can also be somewhat sheltered from their targets response, thus not realise the serious harm of their actions.

Overall, the most frequent impacts of cyber bullying on children and young people appear to be consistent across Kids Helpline data and contemporary research both in Australia and internationally[8][9] Such impacts can include:

  • Low self esteem and loss in confidence
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness or depression
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Embarrassment
  • Decreased academic achievement due to difficulties the affected child has in concentrating or being in a classroom with bullies
  • Truancy behaviour by the child to avoid the bullying behaviour
  • Poor mental health and persistent feelings of being physical ill
  • Self harming/suicidal thoughts and behaviours
  • Negative impacts on the quality of their relationships with family, peers, and authority figures.

It is important to try to understand the impact of each young person's situation of bullying and treat it as their own unique experience as not every young person will respond to cyber bullying in the same way. Research does suggest that cyber bullying is common and in some cases can be severe.

Signs to look for to help recognise cyberbullying

The covert nature of cyber bullying can make it difficult for parents to detect when it is occurring. Like other types of bullying, some children also feel shame associated with the bullying and/or may feel afraid to tell others because they believe the situation will get worse or they will get in trouble or punished. For this reason, parents need to look out for any overt changes in a child's behaviour which may give some clue that they may be being bullied. These signs may include some of the following:

  • Abnormal withdrawal from socialising with friends and/or family
  • Sudden aversion to using their mobile phone or computer
  • Disinterest or avoidance in going to school
  • Dropping out of sports or other recreational activities
  • Nervous or jumpy when a mobile text message or email is received
  • Extreme sleeping behaviour (either lots more or lots less)
  • Abnormal nail biting or other minor or severe self harming behaviours
  • Abnormal changes in mood and/or behaviour

Things parents can do

The powerful impact of feeling scared, powerless, helpless, ashamed and other emotions that can result from being cyber bullied, particularly when occurring over a long period, has the capacity to have long-lasting effects on children.

Ways that you can protect a child from any long-lasting negative impacts of cyber bullying include:

  • Being aware of bullying - i.e. what it is, how it occurs, possible impacts
  • Intervening as early as possible
  • Ensuring the child feels (and is) safe, secure and unconditionally supported
  • Assisting the child to reduce or stop the harassment
  • Helping the child acknowledge and cope with the emotions of cyber bullying and buffering the impact that cyber bullying has on their self-esteem and self-confidence

Unfortunately there is no one strategy or 'quick fix' that works for all children. Children and young people have different strengths and capabilities that need to be considered when developing strategies to deal with cyber bullying. Listed below are several possible strategies and tips that you may like to consider when deciding how best to help a child cope. Use them as a guide, and be creative - the child knows themselves and the situation better than anyone else. Together you can work out what may work best.

Take lots of time to hear, listen and understand

  • Discuss cyber bullying with the child and encourage them to tell you if they're feeling bullied
  • Continually watch out for any abnormal behaviour / mood changes
  • You may experience very strong emotions yourself as the child describes the story - try to stay calm and become aware of your own reactions. It will help the child if you are able to hold on to your own feelings and not act too quickly
  • Take complaints from the child seriously, do not brush them off
  • Try to ascertain what 'meaning' the child takes from the bullying, for example whether they believe what the bully says about them
  • Assure the child that it is not their fault.

Help the child or young person understand the power dynamic of bullying

  • Help the child understand why children engage in bullying, especially the power dynamic. Talk about ways to not give the bully power. For example, in an online chatroom situation emotional retaliations on behalf of the victim in response to the bullying can show that the child is upset which can continue to give the bully power.[10]

Work with the child or young person to develop options, solutions or ways to respond to the bully

  • Find out the situations when the bullying occurs, how the child reacted and things they might have already tried to stop the bullying
  • Ask for the child's opinion and help them come up with problem solving ideas
  • Involving and empowering the child in making decisions will help to hand some of the personal power back to them
  • Encourage them to calmly and assertively retract from any bullying situation and not to fight back
  • Be careful in suggesting they ignore the bullying - this can often lead to further taunting and victimisation
  • Specific online and mobile phone strategies could include:
    • encourage your child to avoid opening emails from cyber-bullies or responding to bullies on MSN or SMS
    • if the site permits, suggest they 'block' the bully or remove them from their friend list
    • suggest they change their online username or mobile number
    • suggest filing a complaint to the website managers (which may lead to the suspension or termination of the cyber bully's access)
    • gently suggest your child takes some time off from the computer or their mobile phone (respecting the fact that they may not wish to)
  • Follow-up after your child has tried the solution and if it didn't work, see if they want to try another strategy.

One common fear expressed by children and young people is that they will be banned from using the internet or their mobile if they tell someone about cyber bullying. It is important to talk to the child about what they feel would be a helpful approach and make sure that you aren't doing things that might be construed as punishing them or that may lead to greater social isolation.

Try to buffer the impact of the cyberbullying by increasing other positive experiences

  • Assist the development of self-esteem and self-confidence by helping the child to develop a broader sense of themselves - highlight their strengths, reassure them that they are loved and valued in the family, encourage and support their interests
  • Create opportunities for them to expand their support networks outside of the bullying setting
  • Help the child experience a sense of personal power and control in other areas of life such as involving them in some decision-making at home
  • Reduce the child's focus on the bullying by increasing the amount of other enjoyable and fun things in their life.

Enlist the assistance of others

  • Notify the school of the bullying behaviour - find out what the school's anti-bullying policies are and what options are available to you. If you're not happy with the actions of the school, make this clear to relevant local education authorities.
  • If you believe the cyber bullying situation is serious enough you may also wish to report the incident to the police and/or a lawyer who can help you consider filing a civil suit against bullies.
  • Seeking assistance from one of the following services can also help you to talk through strategies:
    Parentline Queensland and Northern Territory - 1300 30 1300
    Parentline Victoria - 13 22 89
    Parent Helpline South Australia - 1300 364 100
    Parent Line New South Wales - 13 20 55
    Parent Help Centre Western Australia - 08 92721466 or 1800 654 432
    ParentLink ACT - 02 6205 8800

Helpful links:

References

  1. Beale, A. and Hall, K. (2007). Cyber bullying: What school administrators (and parents) can do. The Clearing House, vol.81, no.1, Sept/Oct.
  2. Price, M. & Dalgleish, J. (2009). Cyberbullying: Experiences, impacts and interventions as described by Australian young people. Youth Studies Australia, 29(2), pp51-59.
  3. Cross, D., Shaw, T., Hearn, L., Epstein, M., Monks, H., Lester, L. & Thomas, L. (2009) Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study (ACBPS). Child Health Promotion Research Centre, Edith Cowna University, Perth.
  4. As cited in Campbell, M. (2007) Cyber bullying and young people: Treatment principles not simplistic advice. In http://www.scientist-practitioner.com, Paper of the week 23rd February 2007.
  5. Cross, D., Monks, H., Hall, M., Shaw, T., Pintabona, Y., Erceg, E., Hamilton, G., Roberts, C., Waters, S. & Lester, L. (2010). Three-year results of the Friendly Schools whole-of-school intervention on children's bullying behaviour, British Educational Research Journal, 37(1), pp105-129.
  6. Campbell, M. (2005) Cyber bullying: An old problem in a new guise?. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 15(1), pp68-76
  7. Qing, Li. (2010). Cyberbullying in high schools: A study of students' behaviors and beliefs about this new phenomenon. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 19(4), pp372-392.
  8. Campbell, M. 2005: 71, Kulig, J., et al., 2007: 3-4, Patchin J., & Sameer, H. 2006: 151-2, Roberts, L., 2008: 5-6
  9. Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2010). Cyberbullying: Identification, prevention and response. Cyberbullying Research Centre sourced from www.cyberbullying.us in January 2011.
  10. Butlier, D.A., Kift, S.M. & Campbell, M.A. (2010). Cyber bullying in schools and the law: is there an effective means of addressing the power imbalance? eLaw Journal, 16(1). Pp. 84-114.

Updated: January 2011