Almost a quarter of Swiss young people have been bullied online at least once, according to the most recent JAMES Study by the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences. But how can parents tell when their child is being targeted by cyberbullies, and how can children be protected against bullying in the virtual space?
Daniel Betschart, Program Manager for Media Skills at the young persons’ charity Pro Juventute, explains what makes cyberbullying so dangerous and offers some tips to help parents combat this insidious form of “teasing”.
Daniel Betschart: The consequences of bullying and cyberbullying in particular can be very serious and have a lasting effect on the lives of young people and adults alike. Cyberbullying differs from other forms of bullying in a number of ways. First of all, it takes place via digital media, which makes it visible to more people and means that hurtful comments often linger for a long time. Victims can be reached via the Internet round the clock, so attacks can happen at any time.
No – it can happen to anyone. It’s all about the social system, the balance of power within a group, and mutual support. There’s no single characteristic that makes people become victims, but bullies do often focus on a specific aspect of the victims’ personality. It could be anything: someone at school who has especially good or bad grades, is a little thinner or fatter than most or perhaps introverted or extroverted.
The important thing to remember is that bullying doesn’t consist of isolated incidents or attacks by an aggressive person but repeated acts of degradation. Whether online or offline, it usually happens within groups of people who know each other. The “victim” isn’t usually chosen at random. There tends to be a phase during which the group determines who is the most suitable target for humiliation.
In many cases, there isn’t really a dividing line between cyberbullying and ordinary bullying. It’s fair to assume that the two overlap and that the same processes apply offline as online. Children and young people who are bullied in the real world are usually bullied in cyberspace as well, and cyberbullies also tend to be offline bullies.
The consequences of cyberbullying differ considerably and depend to a great extent on the victim’s psychological resilience. Support from friends and family also plays a vital role. Victims can suffer severe effects, from feelings of helplessness, shame, and loneliness to a loss of self-confidence, anxiety, and depression or even suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
Bullying always involves a group dynamic, there’s never a simple bully/victim pattern. Silence – on the part of other members of a social group or indeed friends and family – is a central factor in bullying situations. Many victims are too ashamed to actively seek help, which merely reinforces the silence.
Some people believe – wrongly – that they enjoy anonymity on the Internet. This makes them less inhibited when it comes to offending or attacking others.
Bullying feeds off everyone remaining silent – perpetrators, victims, and those around them. You have to break the silence. No one can be subjected to humiliation in an environment where people look out for each other and don’t tolerate bullying. This is what’s needed to ensure that bullying can’t even start in the first place.
It’s important to take care of your own safety and privacy on the Internet. This means using your common sense and not divulging too much personal information online. You have to be aware that, the more information or pictures of yourself you post on social networks or in forums, the more vulnerable you are. You should of course show respect to others as well.
You should definitely involve the wider group and break the silence. You have to decide for yourself in each case whether to contact the police. It’s worth giving the matter a lot of thought and perhaps weighing up whether criminal charges really make sense, since taking legal action can sometimes make things worse. Victim Support can advise you, or you can simply contact the police anonymously and say that you’re asking for a friend.
It’s important to know the warning signs. Pay attention if your child appears depressed, shows an increase in physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches or has trouble sleeping. Another potential indicator is whether friends are keeping in touch as usual. Despite needing help, a quarter of children and young people affected don’t tell anyone they’re being bullied. Respond and ask questions if you notice your child becoming withdrawn and appearing depressed.
As soon as parents find out, they should take the matter seriously, react immediately, and offer support. An atmosphere of trust will help the child to talk about what’s been happening. The child must also be made to realize that he or she isn’t to blame; you should never judge or make accusations. It’s also important to take screenshots of offending chats or photos right away as evidence, and profiles can be blocked or reported.
Find out more about preventing and safeguarding against cyberbullying here.