According to research commissioned by the federal government, around one in five children Australian children were harmed by cyberbullying last year, and the actual figure is possibly as high as 44 per cent.
Symantec, the web security company behind products like Norton Antivirus, published seperate research in The Norton Report: Family Edition, which showed that 45 per cent of harmed children don’t tell their parents or teachers.
Emily May agrees that the statistics reflect the pervasiveness she’s seen in her practice. May is a psychologist who runs Fostering Hope, a Sydney practice that specialises in children, young people and families.
She says the reasons so many kids and teens don’t report cyber-bullying are similar to the reasons they keep more “traditional” bullying to themselves – they might be ashamed, embarrassed or scared it will get worse if they tell an adult.
Even more disturbing, many sufferers might not even recognise what they’re going through as cyberbullying. It puts the onus on parents, schools and society to educate everyone (including victims) about what cyberbullying is and isn’t. “Reporting is crucial to putting an end to cyberbullying and supporting the young person at the receiving end,” May says.
Most of us are pretty aware of the changes we can make in our technology use to protect against threats – keep passwords safe, block and report bullying using the protections built into many social media platforms, etc.
But even more important might be the steps that don’t have to do with technology at all. Have some house rules around computer, tablet and mobile phone use. Take the time to talk about appropriate behaviour. Even giving our kids a strong sense of “do unto others…” can sow the right seeds.
Emily May says the best steps parents can take are proactive. If we help kids develop skills to manage stress, articulate their feelings and assert themselves around peers, they’ll be more likely to identify cyberbullying, report it and cope with it effectively.
As parents, we also need to watch for signs. “It’s important for parents to pick up on any changes in their child’s behaviour,” May says. “Secrecy or anxiety around technology use, mood changes or withdrawing from friends or activities could all indicate cyberbullying.”
There also seems to be a “coping gap” when it comes to our schools. A recent survey from another online security provider, AVG Technologies, found only 28 per cent of Australian teachers have been formally trained in internet safety, with 65 per cent saying schools should provide better training on using the internet.
Part of May’s work involves talking about emotional and mental health issues at schools, and while she agrees well-intentioned policies exist, she says teachers are under-resourced and that a “consistent and active” approach is needed.
And the best defence she’s seen in schools is also preparation. “The most effective initiatives I’ve seen extend beyond reporting and stopping cyberbullying to promoting pro-social behaviour and creating a culture of inclusion,” she says.”
The new normal
Ask some older members of our community and they might tell you stories about being dumped in skip bins, beaten up or “dunny-flushed”, snort derisively, and tell you that kids calling each other names over computers should toughen up.
Maybe so, but consider this. While there’s an escape from older-style bullying, cyberbullying can be relentless, perpetrated from behind shrouds of secrecy, reach a much bigger audience than ever and go on for longer because of technology’s inherent ease of use.
According to May, the effects of cyberbullying can actually be longer-lasting and more damaging than the face-to-face kind. “The most harmful effects come from the 24/7 nature of cyberbullying,” she says, “making it difficult for the victim to escape or find reprieve.”
And just like anything else in the digital era, from internet pornography filters to Facebook use, blanket bans and knee-jerk reactions rarely work. May reports that one of the main reasons behind the disturbingly low number of kids who report cyberbullying is fear of having their smartphone or tablet confiscated.
While technology can be destructive, it’s also one of the most powerful learning and social tools kids have, and simply cutting it out is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Symantec’s Pacific region vice president and managing director Brenton Smith, commenting on The Norton Report, agrees. When it comes to many other social ills, he says, we need to look at behaviour before we try to consider machinery.
“With only 22 per cent [of young victims] staying away from where they were bullied online, it’s clear more education is needed to enable children to make informed decisions about seeking help when dealing with cyberbullies,” Smith says.
It seems that, just as with any other part of parenting and schooling, an ounce of prevention can be worth all the cure in the world.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 10 August 2014.