Tackling cyber-bullying

Written by: Dr Lucy Betts | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Understanding the nature of cyber-bullying and what can be done to support pupils is a vital part of safeguarding practice. Drawing on her research, Dr Lucy Betts has created resources to support schools

Using digital technology and social media is now ubiquitous for most young people. Recent figures support this trend and suggest that 99 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds are online (Ofcom, 2017).

Digital technology use offers many benefits for young people including providing social support, facilitating social connections, and enhancing educational attainment. Young people also regard digital technology as a facilitator and mechanism to maintain social networks. Despite these many benefits that engaging with digital technology affords young people, using it is not without risk.

Cyber-bullying is frequently identified as one of the most common harms that young people experience when using social media and digital technology.

Defining cyber-bullying

Cyber-bullying can be defined as: “(a) intentional aggressive behaviour that is, (b) carried out repeatedly, (c) occurs between a perpetrator and victim who are unequal in power, and (d) occurs through electronic technologies” (Kowalski, Giumetti, Schroeder & Lattanner, 2014).

Therefore, as with the widely accepted definition of face-to-face bullying, cyber-bullying involves an imbalance of power, an intent to harm, and an act that is repeated.

Cyber-bullying can take many forms including behaviours that are text-based (e.g. comments about an individual, threatening or hurtful comments sent to an individual, or rumours) or image-based (e.g. where images are used beyond the intended audience, taken when those in them are unaware, or modified).
Compared to face-to-face bullying at school, with cyber-bullying the potential audience is much greater, and episodes of cyber-bullying can occur at any time.

This means that whereas previously young people who experienced face-to-face bullying at school knew that the bullying would end with the school day, there is no such opportunity for those involved in cyber-bullying.

Impact of involvement in cyber-bullying

There is a growing evidence-base that suggests involvement in cyber-bullying either as a target, perpetrator or both a target and perpetrator, is associated with adjustment difficulties. For example, those with greater levels of involvement in cyber-bullying have lower levels of mental wellbeing and poorer adjustment.

Additionally, there are a number of high-profile “cyber-bullycide” cases where young people have committed suicide following their experiences of cyber-bullying.

Given the extent to which young people are engaging with social media and digital technology and the potential negative outcomes for individuals involved in cyber-bullying, it is important to consider how primary school staff can support the young people involved.

Supporting young people

It is recognised that dealing with cyber-bullying represents a challenge for school personnel for three main reasons. First, because cyber-bullying is likely to occur outside of the school day, where the ultimate responsibility for action remains unclear. However, when involvement in cyber-bullying affects pupils in schools, practitioners have a duty of care to intervene.

My research has also highlighted a spill-over between involvement in cyber-bullying and perceptions of school and learning, particularly for females at secondary school. Females who reported greater involvement cyber-bullying (either as a perpetrator or a target) also reported more negative perceptions of school and learning.

Second, the evolving nature of digital technology and social media means that trends of usage continue to change. For example, the increasing popularity of Instagram and Snapchat over Facebook with young people (according to a report in the eMarketer in August).

Third, disclosure of cyber-bullying is complex. My research with teachers has highlighted that the potential lack of evidence of cyber-bullying is a barrier for disclosure, and secondary school teachers also felt that young people had a perception that cyber-bullying which occurred outside of the school day was something that teachers could not deal with.

This was a sentiment echoed by the young people themselves who discussed how they were afraid to disclose cyber-bullying because they thought it would make the situation worse or would prompt face-to-face bullying. Also, pupils may choose to not disclose cyber-bullying because they fear that their access to technology will be removed or reduced.

Practical steps

Given that cyber-bullying experiences often impact on young people’s schooling, and the associated duty of care that schools have, what follows are some practical steps that school staff can take to tackle cyber-bullying:

  • Through lessons on e-safety, promote and develop young people’s knowledge about how to stay safe online. It is important to personalise these to the technology that the young people use and how they engage with the technology.
  • Remember that when discussing e-safety young people often believe that they are “safe” online and that cyber-bullying is something that affects others. However, ensuring that young people are able to manage their privacy settings online is still important.
  • Provide sessions on cyber-bullying as part of a whole-school approach – a link is included below to a resource for teachers that is based on my own research. These sessions could be used to raise awareness and discuss what to do if a young person encounters cyber-bullying.
  • Develop an environment in school where young people can discuss things that they see online or experience when using digital technology that make them feel uncomfortable. It is important that young people are able to disclose experiences and talk about things that make them feel uncomfortable without the fear of having their access to technology removed.
  • Encourage young people to be active bystanders when they witness cyber-bullying, such as supporting the target.
  • Continually monitor cyber-bullying policies to ensure that they are current and reflective of how young people engage with digital technology. Young people could serve as consultants for ensuring the currency of digital technology and cyber-bullying policies.
  • Strengthen links between home and school to develop collaborative partnerships to tackle cyber-bullying, including regular updates on work in school.
  • Encourage young people to keep evidence of cyber-bullying, such as screenshots that they can share with a trusted adult.
  • Dr Lucy Betts is associate professor in psychology at Nottingham Trent University.

Further information

  • Dr Betts has published a teacher resource pack on cyber-bullying that contains three lesson plans and associated activities. These are appropriate for both secondary and primary pupils and are based on research conducted by Dr Betts. They have been written in collaboration with Howard Lincoln: http://bit.ly/2PHqdCh
  • Bullying in the Digital Age: A critical review and meta-analysis of cyberbullying research among youth, Kowalski, Giumetti, Schroeder & Lattanner, Psychological Bulletin (2014): http://bit.ly/2J5p4Su


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