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It’s time to discover the effective solution for bullying and cyberbullying for schools and their community

It is hard to imagine that there is a teacher today who has not witnessed students being bullied at school or who has not seen the repercussions of cyberbullying on young children and adolescents. Bullying comes in different forms and the hardest ones to intervene, as a teacher, are the insidious and subtle or the ones hidden from the teachers’ view, as in cyberbullying and cyber harassment. While there are many school anti-bullying programs being implemented successfully, the aim here is not to look at programs for implementation, but rather we approach the issue from a wider societal perspective including the differences in opinions regarding criminalisation of cyberbullying. We respond to several questions, the answers to which might interest educators and parents.

What is cyberbullying?

The term ‘cyberbullying’ can be defined according to eight different types of online behaviours: exclusion, harassment, flaming, cyberstalking, denigration, impersonation, outing, and trickery (Willard, 2012). It can also take the form of making jokes about someone or a group, making mean or aggressive remarks, or spreading rumors and lies (Johnson, 2009).

What are the emotional effects of cyberbullying on children?

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner receives an abundance of complaints not only from parents but directly from young children who are experiencing extreme anxiety and hopelessness. By their actions, cyberbullies cause severe harm to productive members of society, usually for trivial reasons or revenge (Konig et al., 2010). The severity of the mental harm of cyberbullying increases as the publicity increases (Pieschl et al., 2015), which is the size of the audience participating in cyberbullying (Sticca & Perren, 2013). Because of its traversing capacity, cyberbullying has no geographic or time boundary and might seem to the child-victim as a hopeless situation that will never cease.

Children who are victims of cyberbullying experience depression, lower-self-esteem (Nansel et al., 2001), self-harm, suicide ideation, and suicide (Elgar et al., 2014) also recently coined as ‘Bullycide’. Award winning author and psychologist , Dr. Serani illustrates the phases of emotional distress on children who have experienced Bullycide in Table 1.

Table 1. Giving up on syndrome – Bullycide

Source: Serani (2020). © 2020 Sussex Publishers

What does the data about child-related cyberbullying, from trusted government agencies tell us?

It is difficult to establish accurate trends in Australia especially regarding the extremely sensitive topic of bullycide due to several factors including: (1) coronial guidelines that dismiss certain cases due to missing or unprovided documentation; and (2) the underestimation by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The concern regarding inaccuracies through underestimation by the ABS was initially raised by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee in 2010 to the Parliament of Australia. Independant research conducted for this report also reflected that there seems to be a tendency by the ABS to hide sensitive data through splitting children’s age ranges with adults or by omitting certain age ranges due to undocumented claims of low numbers.

In addition to the difficulty in establishing links between bullying and self-harm, there is little data regarding bullying in general within children demographics in Australia. To this end, The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2020) report mentions that wellbeing data is regularly obtained from other sources such as: the PIRLS and TIMMS survey data; and data collected through students use of wellbeing online platforms as part of schools’ anti-bullying programs, such as Rumbles Quest and Friendly Schools. The AIHW further states that “There is currently no ongoing comprehensive national data source of children involved in bullying—as victims, perpetrators, bystanders or upstanders—and there are no time-series data available for reporting” (AIHW, 2020). However one aspect of childrens’ cyberbullying commonly reported by various Australian states is its prominence amongst students in the transitioning years between primary and secondary schooling.

Is cyberbullying or children-related cyberbullying a crime in Australia?

Cyberbullying is a habit that usually, otherwise decent, individuals would not participate in, but the ease of the user experience makes the click of a mouse, leading to an exponential increase of participating criminals. Some aspects of cyberbullying fall under the Criminal Code Act 1995, with a maximum penalty of three years prison sentence. Law enforcement agencies in Australia do not deal with cyberbullying issues unless there is a direct threat to cause bodily harm or where it falls under the criminal code. However, these crimes rarely get prosecuted.

It is possible that this is due to the superficial words often used in the criminal code such as “menace” or “offensive” (e.g., Section 474.17-1- 2), which is not explained within the criminal code although it is widely accepted to be aligned with the ‘morality of reasonable adults’. This notion, of ‘morality of reasonable adults’ guiding democratic societies norms, could be contentious given that many ‘reasonable adults’ forgo their morality behind the keyboard and take part in menacing and harassment.

In 2017, a senate hearing on these matters demonstrated that there is some support for the criminalisation of cyberbullying, including offenses by children, nonetheless there is consensus against criminalisation as it might lead to a juvenile justice system, which is best avoided based on the rationale that a juvenile justice system will cause more harm to the bully and hence society in the long run, and that a more appropriate measure is to tackle the problem through educational programs and not the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, there is a second argument often perpetuated under the pretext that cyberbullying is merely one form of bullying, best addressed holistically, notwithstanding the full acknowledgement that the 24/7 effect of cyberbullying differentiates from its counterparts. Currently, there is no other crime where both the victim and the criminal are known to the police and where there is evidence of continued criminal activity and where it is allowed to continue.

Why have some schools succeeded in their implementation of anti-bullying programs, while others have not achieved the same success?

If we had the answer to this question then we might not have the question at all. We can speculate here that schools have anti-bullying policies to protect children; however, some schools might feel there is little they can do to implement effective change, when the bullying is not on school grounds or under their immediate duty-of-care, or when the anti-bullying policies in place are designed for consequence and reprimand.

What is clear, however, is that when an anti-bullying program is systematically designed, negotiated with the student-body, and applied, it can become a well established, understood and negotiated standard. Some schools confront these issues head-on and with creative and active programs, specifically in bringing forward the issue of the ‘bystander’. They conduct anonymous surveys and create programs, which, instead of addressing the victim or the bully, as most programs would, speak to the upstanders (those who take action when becoming aware of bullying) and the bystanders (those who do not speak up or take action). Students within these schools tend to be more acquainted with the notion of peer-feedback and its importance to learning and growth. These schools use the language of learning, which they have developed over time, to address the issue of bullying increasingly successfully. Children who have experienced these programs seem to have a deeper understanding that as upstanders they send a message of solidarity to those who are being bullied. Programs which focus on shifting bystanders to upstanders seek to support bystanders and the concerns they raise during this transition, such as:

  • not knowing what to do or not wanting to make the situation worse
  • not knowing if their actions will make a difference feeling worried about their safety if they intervene
  • feeling worried about the impact of taking action on their friendships
  • being anxious that they will be bullied as a result of intervening
    (The Department of Education- Tasmania)

Recent technological advances can further assist schools and educators in supporting the wellbeing of students. In online learning spaces, automated textual analysis and text mining techniques can come to educators’ aid to help with the timely detection of verbal and written bullying and other inappropriate behaviours that manifest themselves in language use.

Schools building a community of practice as part of their culture

For some teachers, it might be difficult to believe that there are schools almost free of bullying, and their community reports few incidents of cyberbullying. The school cultures which have successfully tackled this issue are as varied as one can imagine, in terms of socio-economic status, location, denomination, etc, but they tend to have built a community of practice with deeply ingrained terminologies and ways of ‘being’ a member of that community. This is not a reflection of schools, which continue to try to the best of their ability to curb this endemic, but rather, there is a pattern of behaviour, which children engage in, and understanding these patterns of behaviour, as well as the features of school cultures which have addressed them successfully, is key to finding an effective solution to bullying and cyberbullying.

Researchers (e.g., Li, 2016) report that children have a high awareness of mental health, and want to become part of the decision making process for setting policies to protect themselves and other children. This strategy of encouraging advocacy has been reported by the world health organisation as one of the most important roles for mental health prevention (WHO, 2013). I believe that amongst the reasons why this role is imperative to the solution is that it has the capacity to empower the ‘silent participant’ to find their advocate voice, in line with the belief that systems only change from within.

After the story of 14-year-old Dolly Everet in 2018, many teachers were heartbroken and hopeful that this would be the name of the girl who prompts the nation to reflect on the situation more seriously. However, cyberbullying continues to propagate without any real consequence or limit. We need to consider why this behaviour is being tolerated given authorities’ knowledge of the direct correlation to mental harm. Are these venting outlets another form of pacifying society? We need to reflect on this societal behaviour openly, including in schools, and consider the affordances and consequences of unmoderated communication software for childrens’ use.

We can now reflect on the absurdity of past actions in Australia, such as teachers smoking on school grounds, systemic racial segregation, banning women from entering certain places on school grounds or bars, depriving the owners of the land (for 60,000 years) the right to vote, all of which were the realities of the not-so-distant-past. We now look back at these laws, policies and behaviours with disgust and disbelief, and in the same manner, we will one day realise the absurdity of letting this happen to our children and not allowing childrens’ ‘voice’ in matters which affect them the most.

If you or anyone you know is being bullied online, contact Kids Help Line (1-800-55-1800) http://www.kidshelp.com.au or Lifeline (13 11 14) http://www.lifeline.org.au.

Read more and references

Elgar, F. J., Napoletano, A., Saul, G., Dirks, M. A., Craig, W., Poteat, V. P., … Koenig, B. W. (2014). Cyberbullying victimization and mental health in adolescents and the moderating role of family dinners. Jama Pediatrics, 168(11), 1015–1015.
Johnson, J. M. (2009, March). The impact of cyber bullying: A new type of relational aggression. In American Counseling Association Annual Conference and Exposition.

Konig, A., Gollwitzer, M., & Steffgen, G. (2010). Cyberbullying as an act of revenge? Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 20(2), 210–224.

Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among us youth: prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Jama : The Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(16), 2094–2100.

Pieschl, S., Kuhlmann, C., & Porsch, T. (2015). Beware of publicity! perceived distress of negative cyber incidents and implications for defining cyberbullying. Journal of School Violence, 14(1), 111–111. https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2014.971363
Willard, N. E. (2012). Cyber savvy : embracing digital safety and civility. Corwin.

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