13 year old girl, Edmonton (Source: Young Canadians in a Wired World, Focus Groups, MediaSmarts, 2004)
The Internet has created a whole new world of social communications for young people who are using e-mail, Web sites, instant messaging, chat rooms and text messaging to stay in touch with friends and make new ones.
While most interactions are positive, new technologies have given young people a new – and powerful – platform from which to target peers. In a 2008 University of Toronto study, half the students reported having been cyberbullied.
There is little doubt that cyberbullying, which can be the equivalent of "social death" for many young people, is traumatic. It differs from traditional, face-to-face bullying in that it is relentless and public and at the same time anonymous. Cyberbullying has turned the usual image of "the bully" on its head; it's no longer only the "tough kids" who may act aggressively – it can just as easily be the shy, quiet types, hidden behind their computers. Added to this is the potential presence of countless, invisible witnesses and/or collaborators to the cyberbullying, which creates a situation where victims are left unsure of who knows, and whom to fear.
Technology also extends the reach these young people have, enabling them to harass their targets anywhere and at anytime. While these situations should be reported, it can be difficult for young people to step forward: how do you report an attack that leaves no physical scars and is committed by a nameless attacker? Will the consequences of telling an adult that you are being cyberbullied be worse than the bullying itself? Adults want to help, but many feel ill-equipped to handle bullying in a digital world.
How kids cyberbully
According to a study, young people are most likely to encounter cyberbullying through instant messaging, followed by e-mail, Web sites for games and social networking.
Built-in digital cameras in cell phones are adding a new dimension to the problem. In one case students used a camera-enabled cell phone to take a photo of an overweight classmate in the shower after gym. The picture was distributed throughout the school e-mail list within minutes. The emerging trend of sexting also exposes teenagers to cyberbullying: personal messages and photographs, even those sent to real friends or boyfriends/girlfriends, could end up being embarrassing if the relationship sours and private photos are made public.
On social networking sites, you can now tag images with the names of people who are in the photo. This simple act can lead to cyberbullying, as these photos will appear in any search into this person’s name and it could be that misappropriated profile settings do not protect access to them.
Multiplayer online games and virtual worlds can be venues for harassment and cyberbullying when kids are playing or using the chat features to talk to other players. According to a 2008 Pew Internet & American Life Project report, more than half of teens who play games report seeing or hearing “people being mean and overly aggressive while playing”; a quarter of them report that this happens “often.”
Who cyberbullies and whyCyberbullies
A quarter of youth who perpetrate cyberbullying are teenagers who have also bullied others offline. However, the remaining three quarters do not bully others in person – implying that the Internet has empowered youth who would never consider bullying anyone in the physical world to do so in the virtual world.
Nancy Willard of the Responsible Netizen Institute explains that technology can also affect a young person's ethical behaviour because it doesn't provide tangible feedback about the consequences of actions on others. This lack of feedback minimizes feelings of empathy or remorse. Young people say things online that they would never say face-to-face because they feel removed from the action and the person at the receiving end.Targets
Targets are the victims of cyberbullying behaviour. Although there is no physical violence, cyberbullying may be more frightening to targets because there are, potentially, an unlimited number of witnesses. When bullying is anonymous, targets don’t know who to watch out for or respond to – which can lead to feelings of helplessness. Over half (52 per cent) of teenagers who are targets of cyberbullying never actually report it.Bystanders
Cyberbullying often occurs away from adults. Thus, witnesses or bystanders to cyberbullying have a very important role to play when it comes to putting an end to it. They represent social consensus and in this capacity, have an important role to play in stopping or supporting cyberbullying. In a study conducted by the University of Toronto in 2008, 28 per cent of the students reported having witnessed cyberbullying. Of this percentage, half react by rising up against cyberbullying; the other half goes along with it.
Tips for parents
Cyberbullying is everyone's business and the best response is a pro-active or preventative one. From the outset, parents can reduce the risks associated with Internet use if they engage in an open discussion with their children about their online activities and set up rules that will grow along with them.
- For younger kids, create an online agreement or contract for computer use, with their input. Make sure your agreement contains clear rules about ethical online behaviour. MediaSmarts' Young Canadians in a Wired World research shows that in homes where parents have clear rules against certain kinds of activities, young people are much less likely to engage in them.
- With small children who visit games sites, rules should deal with online interaction: never provide personal information and don’t share passwords with friends.
- For teenagers, online social activity is intense. Therefore, this is the time to discuss the nature of your teen’s online interaction and, more specifically, his or her responsible use of Internet. Sexting can easily lead to cyberbullying, particularly if the relationship sours.
Whether your child is a tween or a teen, talk to them about responsible Internet use:
- Teach them to never post or say anything on the Internet that they wouldn’t want the whole world – including you – to read.
- Talk to them about reaching out to an adult at the first sign of a threat. Don’t take for granted that your child will: only 8 per cent of teens who have been bullied online have told their parents.
- Chill! Kids refuse to confide in their parents because they fear that once they find out about the cyberbullying, they will take away their Internet or cell phone.
- Teach your children that what goes on online is everyone’s business. Let them know that action must be taken when faced with cyberbullying. Not reporting it is tantamount to approving it.
- … and, of course, set the example with your own ethical online behaviour.
- Watch out for signs that your child is being bullied online – a reluctance to use the computer or go to school may be an indication.
- If the bully is a student at your child's school, meet with school officials and ask for help in resolving the situation.
- Report online bullying to your Internet or cell phone service provider. Most companies have Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) that clearly define privileges and guidelines for those using their services, and the actions that can be taken if those guidelines are violated. They should be able to respond to reports of cyberbullying over their networks, or help you track down the appropriate service provider to respond to.
- Report incidents of online harassment and physical threats to your local police. Some forms of online bullying are considered criminal acts. For example: under the Criminal Code of Canada, it is a crime to communicate repeatedly with someone if your communication causes them to fear for their own safety or the safety of others.
- It's also a crime to publish a "defamatory libel" – writing something that is designed to insult a person or likely to injure a person's reputation by exposing him or her to hatred, contempt or ridicule.
Parents should also teach their kids how to react to an online bully:
- Stop: leave the area or stop the activity (i.e. chat room, online game, instant messaging, social networking site, etc.).
- Block the sender's messages. Never reply to harassing messages.
- Talk to an adult. If the bullying includes physical threats, tell the police as well.
- Save any harassing messages and forward them to your Internet Service Provider (i.e. Hotmail or gmail). Most service providers have appropriate use policies that restrict users from harassing others over the Internet – and that includes kids!