Author: Verónica Donoso, European Schoolnet

The KID_ACTIONS project aims to create a range of evidence-based innovative tools to tackle cyberbullying among young people aged 11-19. In this article we would like to provide a short overview of key pressing issues related to research in the area of cyberbullying.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying refers to intentional and repeated harm that others inflict via a digital device (Hinduja and Patchin, 2009) and is usually defined in the literature as “an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself” (Smith et al., 2008, p.376). Although Cyberbullying is regarded as a serious health and growing social problem (Dehue, Bolman & Völlink, 2008; O’Reilley et al. 2021) and a significant amount of literature on cyberbullying exists, to date there exists no universally accepted definition (Peter & Petermann, 2018).

Cyberbullying can take several forms including harassment, denigration, impersonation, flaming, outing and trickery, exclusion and cyber-stalking (Willard, 2007). Notably, cyberbullying takes place on different platforms including texts or apps, photo messaging, videos and online games, as well as a wider range of social media platforms (Ofcom, 2017).

How does cyberbullying differ from “traditional” bullying?

Although evidence suggests that (offline) bullying and cyberbullying are not completely separate phenomena, there are a number of features that distinguish online from offline bullying (e.g., Smith, Del Barrio and Tokunaga, 2013) such as the fact that cyberbullying can potentially reach a larger audience, and cyber bullies can be “anonymous” and physically “distant” from their victims making perpetrators less aware of the potential damage inflicted on victims (Smith et al., 2008; Tokunaga, 2010). Traditional definitions of bullying include aspects such as the intentional, repetitive character and the imbalance of power. However, aspects such as repetition or imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim may be less relevant in online contexts and, therefore less reliable for determining the incidence of cyberbullying (e.g. Smith 2011, Lampert & Donoso, 2012).

How common is cyberbullying?

Although cyberbullying is a concerning problem, it is challenging to determine how common it really is (O’Reilley et al, 2021). For instance, Kowalski, Giumetti et al. (2014) examined 131 research studies of cyberbullying and they found out that estimates of cyberbullying varied greatly and tended to range from prevalence figures of 10–40% depending on how cyberbullying was defined and on the age of the victims. Other studies have also found considerable differences both within and across countries. For example, USA studies suggest that victimisation rates ranged from 20.8–40.6% (Hinduja and Patchin, 2010a), with a more recent study suggesting it is as high as 59% of adolescents (Anderson, 2018). In the UK a study found that 21.2% of 11–19 year olds have experienced cyberbullying (NHS Digital, 2018). In Europe, the EU Kids Online found that cyberbullying had increased from 8–12% from 2010 to 2014 with girls seeming to be more affected as their rates had risen to 15% (Livingstone et al., 2014). We can see that cyberbullying figures are difficult to determine, and some studies report statistics much lower than others depending on how cyberbullying is defined, measured or understood by CYP (O’Reilley et al, 2021).

How serious is cyberbullying?

There is consensus that there can be serious consequences for the victims of cyberbullying. These include embarrassment, fear and upset, avoidance of the Internet (Wolak, Mitchell & Finkelhor, 2006); being subject to social isolation, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression (O’Reilley et al., 2021) as well as school absence and lower grades (Willard, 2006; Beran & Li, 2007). Furthermore, the bullying conduct can impact the victims’ academic performance, and lead to emotional trauma (Ma, Phelps et al., 2009). Cyberbullying has the “potential to inflict serious psychological, emotional, or social harm” (Patchin and Hinduja (2006: 149) and has also been associated to both victims’ and bullies’ psychosocial maladjustment (Ybarra & Mitchell 2004). More recent research (Kowalski, Giumetti et al., 2014) has confirmed that there is a range of mental health and physical health problems resulting from cyberbullying and that the impact and effects of cyberbullying were profound on the victims.
A major concern for practitioners, parents and society is the impact that cyberbullying can have on self-harm and (attempted) suicide (O’Reilley et al., 2021). There is some evidence indicating that there is a relationship between being a victim of cyberbullying and these serious consequences (Daine, Hawton et al., 2013). However, it is important to stress that situations of online risk do not always result in harm. Nevertheless, when harm arises the impact on some CYP can be devastating.

Are all children and young people (CYP) affected equally by cyberbullying?

Evidence suggests that some groups of CYP are more likely to become victims of cyberbullying. For example, those with disabilities (MacArthur & Gaffney, 2001), those with mental health conditions, and those from lower socio-economic indices (d’Haenens et al., 2013). Research shows that young people with behavioural and emotional mental health conditions do experience high levels of bullying and cyberbullying (Hart and O’Reilly, in press).
The impact cyberbullying can have on a personal level depends on several factors. These include individual characteristics (e.g., personality traits of bullies and victims, the capacity of the victim to cope with the incident), contextual factors such as the form of the cyber aggression, the media employed to inflict harm (Slonje & Smith, 2008; Smith et al., 2008) but also the (social) support available for victims (e.g., at home, school, through their peers or through trusted persons in their environment). This means that cyberbullying can impact different children in different ways depending on the mechanisms and support they have at their disposal and the (personal) strategies employed to tackle this type of aggression (e.g. more or less effective coping strategies).

Does cyberbullying only affect victims?

Cyberbullying can have devastating effects on the victims, but studies have also shown that its repercussions can go far beyond. For instance, a severe cyberbullying incident can negatively affect a class, a school or even the health and well-being of families and communities. We must remember that the bullies themselves need attention as they are also at risk (Cowie, 2013). Also remember that bullies may be victims of bullying too (O’Reilley et al., 2021).

Main challenges to tackle cyberbullying

  • Different types of aggressive behaviour have become widely accepted and even normalised especially in online platforms such as social media or videogaming platforms. For many CYP it is simply accepted that this is an area of conduct that they are likely to encounter at some point (O’Reilley aet al., 2021).
  • Although cyberbullying is a concern for parents, teachers and practitioners working with CYP, as this behaviour occurs online it is frequently hidden from parents and other adults (George & Odgers, 2015).
  • Because the (cyber) bully is not present to see and witness the reactions of the victim first-hand (Anti-Bullying Alliance, 2019), they usually lack physical and social cues which are necessary to induce empathy.
  • When engaging with in-person bullying there is the likelihood of eventual physical separation between the bully and the victim, but for cyberbullying this physical separation does not happen (Mesch, 2009).
  • The possibility to “hide behind a screen” (whether anonymous or not) can encourage the bully to go further in their aggression than they might in person (O’Reilley at al., 2021).
  • Cyberbullying may not be a visible activity so that others may be less able to intervene and curtail it, and therefore the aggressor may manage to escape accountability for their actions (O’Reilley et al., 2021).

Preventing and responding to cyberbullying

In April 2021 the Kids action project interviewed 15 international experts. They all acknowledged that cyberbullying is everybody’s responsibility, and they stressed the important role that schools, parents, the industry, civil society, as well as governments and CYP themselves can play is helping tackle the problem. Their recommendations include:

  • Continue educating and working with school personnel so that they can adequately prevent, detect, and respond to cyberbullying incidents, even when these not happen at school.
  • CYP need to be taught to disclose when incidents happen, but they also need to feel that disclosing such hurtful incidents will help. Therefore, educating adults and providing useful, practical resources and tools so that they can foster a supportive relationship of trust with CYP can have a positive impact in tackling cyberbullying and helping children build resilience.
  • Vulnerable children require additional, tailored support because they usually encounter personal problems, difficult environments but they also usually lack support networks and tend to be isolated, what negatively affects their capacity to build the necessary resilience to tackle problematic situations such as cyberbullying.
  • Start with prevention efforts from a young age and support children to lean to deal with adversity without limiting children’s autonomy and ability to develop their own mechanisms to develop resilience.
  • Teach children to cope with their emotions and to develop self-regulation empathy.
  • Encourage peer-to-peer based- approaches to raise awareness and to foster a caring school environment. This will help prevent incidents from happening or from escalating beyond control.
  • Better policies and regulation as well as increased accountability from the ICT sector remain crucial.
  • To date, little is known about the effectiveness of programmes and interventions to reduce (cyber) bullying. Experts referred to the importance of monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of these programmes and strategies.

Last, an important contribution of the KID ACTIONS project will be developing resources and tools that target not only CYP, but also parents, teachers, youth workers and other professionals working with children both in formal and informal education. Our aim is to support wider educational efforts and, thus, help reduce the incidence of the harmful.

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