The blurred lines of online bullying

Written by: Martha Evans | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

If we are to better protect children from online bullying, we must recognise the blurred lines between different forms of bullying and stop treating online incidents in isolation. Martha Evans explains

Recently, my dad was trying to impart astronomical knowledge to my six-year-old nephew. After many attempts, he asked: “Do you know how far the moon is from earth?”

My nephew, frustrated by the question, turned to one side and barked, “Alexa, how far away is the moon from earth?”
A soft and measured voice diffused the tension in the room: “The moon is 384,400 km from earth.”

In that moment, my dad’s face was etched with equal measures of irritation and confusion.

He had not heard of a “voice-controlled personal assistant” before and certainly had not seen one in action.

A far cry from the children in my life who have taken like ducks to water to this kind of technology. They find it normal that there is a tiny computer in the room always listening, always waiting for you to tell it what to do.

Those of us over the age of 30 still talk about “going online” and the “real world”, but younger people don’t differentiate – the lines are blurred.

It made me think about the work that we do to address bullying among children, and how we cannot talk about online bullying as if it is completely removed from bullying that takes place face-to-face. For children living internet-enabled lives, bullying spans the divide.

This fact is something we must put at the forefront of our work as we prepare to mark this year’s Safer Internet Day on Tuesday, February 11.

So, what happens most, bullying online or face-to-face? Research by academics at Warwick University has revealed a strong link between “traditional” face-to-face bullying and bullying online.

It found that online bullying creates very few new victims. The vast majority of children who are tormented on the internet are bullied face-to-face first. Very few children are victims of cyber-bullying alone (Wolke et al, 2017).

At the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), one young person said to us recently that online bullying is another “tool in the toolbox” for children who bully. If we want to address online bullying we must look at where it starts.

This is not to say that online bullying does not present any new challenges. There are a number of elements that make it different.

Children tell us cyber-bullying can happen 24/7, even in your bedroom. It can reach a wide audience and be repeated and shared for years to come. People who bully online can hide their identity and make incidents even scarier as a result.

So, what can we do? During Anti-Bullying Week last year, with support from O2, the ABA worked with a diverse group of young people from across England. Together we looked at research about what works to address all types of bullying.

The young people then developed practical recommendations for key stakeholder groups that they felt could effect change and these have been published in the report Change Starts With Us (ABA, 2019).

They were adamant that parents and carers, schools, government, media and technology companies – and young people themselves – all had a role to play.

What struck me most about this work was the insight young people had about the challenges that are presented when taking action against cyber-bullying. They knew that it was in the main a continuum of face-to-face bullying.

They felt there had been some improvements, particularly by the big social media platforms, to deal with reports of bullying. However, they were clear that much more must be done. They wanted social media and gaming platforms to do three very important things:

  • To be clear about the types of behaviour that was acceptable on their sites.
  • To act swiftly, fairly and appropriately when bullying did happen.
  • To be transparent about the amount of bullying that is going on.

Their call for transparency has recently been echoed in a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2020).

The report makes a number of recommendations, including for better data-sharing protocols to help research into the impact of social media on young people, and for social media platforms to “flag up engagement with risky content and operate and offer a free direct hotline for at-risk or vulnerable individuals”.

In his foreword to the report, Ian Russell, founder of the Molly Rose Foundation, states: “The increasing speed of the digital revolution is hard to keep up with. Exponential technological progress brings many benefits, but the quickening developments can easily disguise the growth of harms that inevitably come in their wake.”

It is clear we need openness from the tech companies, sharing data so we can understand how incidents of cyber-bullying emerge and evolve, and how this can affect the emotional wellbeing of young people.

When we talk to young people about their experience of bullying, they talk about how upsetting the incidents are. But they also talk about the damage caused by things surrounding the incidents. They are clear about the upset caused by inactivity or a lack of empathy from bystanders. For example:

  • “Someone saw but didn’t say anything.”
  • “A teacher told me to ignore them.”
  • “I reported it online but they said it didn’t violate their community guidelines.”

These things compound the hurt caused by bullying. Social media companies have the power to reduce bullying on their sites but they also have the power to reduce this collateral damage when it happens.

This Safer Internet Day, I want all stakeholders that can affect change, including technology companies, to realise that they have the power to reduce the damage cause by bullying.

Schools can play their part and a good starting point would be discussing the recommendations from young people in the Change Starts With Us report.

  • Martha Evans is director of the Anti-Bullying Alliance.

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