Reports of violence at school and suicide among teenagers used to be restricted to isolated incidents. Today, however, the incidence of both has risen alarmingly.
Furthermore, cyber-bullying may play a role in this – statistics reveal that almost 50 per cent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 20 have experienced cyber-bullying.
Amy Gallagher is a middle school English teacher who had the terrible experience of one of her students taking their own life last year: “She was in year 8 and posted her last message and photo on Facebook before she took her life,” she explained.
Two school counsellors were present for students and teachers in the aftermath. Leaflets were also distributed and teachers were tasked with looking out for signs in the classroom.
After learning of the student’s death, Ms Gallagher took to reading over all of her writing assignments: “I wanted to see if there was something she wrote that may have been a cry for help. I was fretful about re-reading her work because I felt like there was something I missed. To the contrary, she masked her pain even in her writing,” she said.
Cyber-bullying can be extremely damaging to young people because it does not necessarily inflict physical pain, but emotional and mental trauma.
Among the experts discussing the issue at the British Psychological Society (BPS) annual conference last month was anti-virus specialist Mark James. He told delegates: “Your child’s bully can follow them into their room. This ultimately can make cyber-bullying even more daunting for a child as there is often no escape.”
Despite the media coverage and proactive steps taken by several schools against cyber-bullying, there remains a lack of awareness of its frequency and consequences. A study conducted by Eset involving 971 parents and guardians found that half would not know if their child was being cyber-bullied. The same proportion admitted to not knowing what they should do if they discovered their child was being bullied online.
Furthermore, a new study by Dr Lucy Betts and Sondos Metwally of Nottingham Trent University has found that this lack of awareness also extends to teenagers. Students think “it won’t happen to me”.
Dr Betts and Ms Metwally presented their study during the BPS event in Liverpool. It involved a survey of 109 young people between the ages of 16 and 18, measuring how vulnerable they felt to cyber-bullying and how vulnerable they felt other groups were.
Other groups included friends, students of the same age, younger students and strangers. It was found that students perceived they were at lower risk for cyber-bullying than others. Additionally, girls were found to be more aware of the risk of experiencing cyber-bullying than boys.
During the conference, Dr Betts said: “Our findings suggest that while young people are aware of the potential risks associated with cyber-bullying, they believe they are less likely to experience cyber-bullying than their peers. This unrealistic perception of invulnerability appears to lead many to think it is something that happens to other people.”
The tell-tale signs
Any student can be at risk of being bullied online. Some of the signs that a student might be the victim of cyber-bullying include spending a lot of time on social media sites and obsessing about what others say.
A student may feel upset, angry or humiliated after reading a post about themselves but feel they must keep their emotions secret. Other signs include a reluctance to go to school or talk to other students, or having thoughts of transferring to another school.
They may consider erasing their online profiles and spend most of their offline time agonising about negative posts and contemplating responses to those posts.
According to Dr Betts: “It may be necessary to implement more measures so that while continuing to raise young people’s awareness of the risks, we also ensure they fully understand that this could actually happen to them.”
Teenagers should be able to recognise that they can also become victims of cyber-bullying, and they and their parents should be able identify the signs of cyber-bullying. In addition, schools can facilitate increasing levels of awareness.
The role of schools
Schools are well-placed to educate students about the signs of cyber-bullying, including how to identify whether a student is a victim or perpetrator. A student won’t be able to prevent cyber-bullying unless they understand what it is and how it occurs.
At the same time, if a student doesn’t recognise they are acting like a bully, they will be unable to avoid the same situation in the future. Young people, whether they are the bully or victim, can act out negative behaviours and thoughts without even knowing it.
Another important role for the school is to be a persistent monitor. According to Ms Gallagher: “The clearest lens to see what is going on in a student’s life is to be connected via social media as a monitor. School districts must have ‘online monitors’ of cyber communications.”
She is quick to remind that this must be done without infringing on rights or being accused of spying.
Teenagers can have a negative perception of victims of cyber-bullying. They tend to think that only “losers” get bullied and those who tell adults about it are weak and can’t take a joke.
This means that even when a student sees signs of cyber-bullying, they would rather keep it to themselves than to appear “uncool”.
Ms Gallagher suggests having an anonymous outlet where students can report cyber-bullying to a trusted and approachable source, be it a national teachers’ association, a school nurse, or a school counsellor.
It can also be a place where students can freely ask advice and clarify doubts on whether they are becoming victims or perpetrators of cyber-bullying.
Teenagers can observe when others are being bullied online, but can fail to recognise when they are becoming victims or bullies themselves.
With the increasing use of social media, schools should help to make students aware that they are at as much risk of cyber-bullying as others, otherwise they will see no reason to ask for help to change their situation.
Dr Nicola Davies is a consultant psychologist and freelance writer.