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Behaviour - We have the weapons to beat cyberbullying

Patrolling the internet may seem a hopeless task, but teachers need not despair: the tools to protect students are in their hands

Patrolling the internet may seem a hopeless task, but teachers need not despair: the tools to protect students are in their hands

Many teachers approach the topic of cyberbullying with a mixture of panic, confusion and defeatism. And if you listen to media reports about how educators do not have the capacity to monitor the online world and protect students, it is far from surprising that this attitude prevails.

But those reports are largely inaccurate and the perception of cyberbullying as an undefeatable foe is wide of the mark. We are overcomplicating the issue. It is time for the truth about cyberbullying to be heard and for the steps to start tackling it to be made clear.

The first myth to debunk is that cyberbullying is new. It's not. The reality is that it has been part of the landscape since people first started playing computer games or going online. It has become more visible - and more prevalent - simply because of the dawn of the affordable mobile phone, the increasing connectivity of computer games and our greater reliance on electronic communication.

Define and conquer

The term cyberbullying also needs to be more clearly defined, as its use can often be misleading. Basically, cyberbullying is harassment conducted through an electronic means of communication. So it can be an email, a text message, a post on a social media site, a comment on a blog, the circulation of an embarrassing picture, the uploading of a video or even the wilful destruction of someone's avatar in a computer game for no other reason than to upset them.

It is a broad area and some trepidation from teachers is understandable. Yet it is important to realise that cyberbullying does not differ fundamentally from other forms of bullying. Its aim is to shame and embarrass. It can include threats of physical violence, name-calling and promises of worse to come if the victim does not do what the bully wants. And, of course, it provides a power trip for the cyberbully. Viewed like this, it should not seem as intimidating to teachers. It is familiar, not foreign.

Where cyberbullying does differ is in the capacity of its perpetrators to harass around the clock and to infiltrate the home, often without parents knowing. Also, it is more difficult to ascertain who is the bully and who is the victim. The perpetrator can assume a number of disguises by using false account details or by setting up new email accounts. Anonymity is a vital part of the power that the cyberbully holds over their online victim, but anonymity is used in traditional bullying, too.

It is more difficult to discount the victim's role in cyberbullying. Research conducted by Australian and Swiss academics has shown that those who are targets of online harassment may themselves reciprocate. As a result, roles can become interchangeable. From a school's perspective it is worth considering whether the first student to report online harassment should be designated as "the victim". Do we always know who initiated the campaign?

This quandary is one of many aspects of cyberbullying that schools and researchers have learned about in the past decade. Far from the education sector being uninformed and helpless, there is actually a lot of information out there.

For example, we know that school-age victims of cyberbullying are usually also victims of more traditional forms of bullying. It is likely that the same students' names will appear in online incidents as in offline ones. Cyberbullying does not happen in a vacuum and so it will probably manifest in school, too.

In addition, the UK organisation Ditch the Label recently worked collaboratively with the social networking service Habbo Hotel to conduct a cyberbullying survey of more than 10,000 young people. Two key conclusions that are often missing from discussion of cyberbullying can be drawn from the data they collected.

First, the highest rates of bullying are found where particular services have captured the market. Facebook, with more than 1.1 billion subscribers, had the highest rate of reported online bullying in the survey.

Myspace and Bebo - social networking services that were popular in the early 2000s - had low rates of cyberbullying because they were no longer used by young people.

When it came to other services such as Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and Instagram, rates of cyberbullying rose and fell in line with market share. Essentially, no single platform better facilitates cyberbullying - it happens in proportion to the number of users.

The second, related key point is that cyberbullying may be being over- reported because so many of the online services interface with one another. Thus, accounts of cyberbullying on Facebook correlate strongly with accounts of similar behaviour on, say, Twitter or Instagram.

This information is useful for teachers, because it shows that no single platform is "more suited" to bullying. Cyberbullying is possible on all platforms and the bullying of one person is likely to occur on several of them. Also, if cyberbullying is subject to market forces, this suggests that being aware which social networking services young people are currently using, and updating anti-bullying policies regularly to reflect this, can be a good first step in ensuring that policies "speak" to students.

Promising interventions

Research into how to prevent cyberbullying is mounting, too; fortunately, it would appear that existing anti-bullying measures can be effective. KiVa, an anti-bullying intervention developed by Professor Christina Salmivalli from the University of Turku in Finland, has been shown to have a positive impact on cyberbullying.

In the US, meanwhile, professors Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, co- directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, have found that factors such as school climate, and the presence of peer-mentoring schemes and social skills training - all stock anti-bullying strategies - can also have an effect.

Although existing approaches will work, this does not mean that teachers should carry on completely as normal - research also suggests possible adaptations. Ditch the Label found that, in addition to strict policies at school and college, the children and young people surveyed wanted teachers to promote an awareness of the impact that cyberbullying could have on victims. They also wanted more online support when they encountered cyberbullying.

This last approach has experienced some success in Australia, where the government's downloadable Cybersafety Help Button provides all internet users with access to cybersafety information and assistance - including counselling, a reporting service and educational resources for young people facing all sorts of online risks.

These are by no means major changes to what teachers are doing already. Indeed, schools need to realise that cyberbullying is not so different from other forms of bullying. The panic about it is disproportionate: although we still have much work to do, it is something that we are increasingly able to combat effectively.

Ian Rivers is professor of human development and head of the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University London. He is also a visiting professor at Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Strathclyde. His forthcoming book with Sheri Bauman from the University of Arizona looks at mental health in the digital age

Further information


Cyberbullying Research Center

The Australian government's Cybersafety Security Button

Patchin, J and Hinduja, S (2014) Words Wound: delete cyberbullying and make kindness go viral (Free Spirit Publishing).

The Annual Cyberbullying Survey 2013 (Ditch the Label).

What else?

Safer Internet Day takes place on 11 February in the UK. Find related resources here.

Bring parents up to speed with a Safer Internet Day fact sheet from Childnet.

Tackle cyberbullying with the help of resources shared by children's charity the NSPCC.

Ensure students are prepared by holding a cyberbullying assembly.

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