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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me: Young people and online bullying

Growing up is challenging.

For today’s young people, or Gen-Z as they’re known, growing up has involved a different dimension to all the previous generations before them – they’ve never lived in a time without the internet. Everything this generation has experienced, and will ever experience, will always involve a digital element. Whilst that comes with limitless opportunities, many of which we should celebrate, it also includes an additional layer of complexity when offline and online identities become intertwined and inseparable. This relationship between the offline and online self is never more pronounced than when we look at bullying behaviours and the impact this has on young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Online bullying, also referred to as cyberbullying, is a form of bullying where the perpetrator uses digital technology to seek harm, intimidate, harass, coerce or upset another person. This form of bullying can occur in many different ways – from hurtful or hateful direct messages to the sharing of humiliating content on social media platforms. The growth of technology and online platforms like social media have simply given bullies the tools and easier means to continue or initiate their tactics of harassment and intimidation. Some methods can even be more calculated, where perpetrators set up fake profiles and masquerade as their victims, using this platform as a means to inflict hurt. Most children are not directly involved in bullying but are a witness or bystander to bullying behaviours. Sometimes they get roped into reinforcing the bullying, such as commenting or sharing hurtful content, which can make the situation more traumatic for the victim.

In a recent report, Ofcom found that 54% of 12-15 year-olds had been bullied via text or messaging apps and 53% had experienced bullying on social media platforms. The Office for National Statistics found that being called names, sworn at or insulted or having nasty messages about them sent directly to them were found to be the most common types of online bullying behaviours children and young people experienced. As with offline bullying, to be on the receiving end of any bullying behaviours can be a distressing experience for young people but it can also be an isolating one too.

So why are so many young people experiencing bullying online? Ofcom data revealed that 91% of 12–15-year-olds have their own smartphone, and this rise in personal devices among young people means that they can be contacted anytime and anywhere. Unlike offline bullying, the internet never sleeps, meaning it can be difficult for victims of online bullying to escape and find respite from the targeted negative behaviours. Cyberbullying also differs from its offline counterpart with regards to the security the screen provides the perpetrator. The use of a device to interact with others reduces empathy, compared to face-to-face encounters, meaning perpetrators cannot see the immediate emotional response that their behaviour is having on the other person. It can be much easier to say and do hurtful things from the safety behind a screen with the simple click of a button. Technology also adds an additional layer of anonymity – bullies can easily hide their identity online and use this disguise to behave inappropriately online without the threat of imminent consequence. We also must not forget that young people on social media are being exposed to a wealth of toxic and conflictual behaviour online from adults. When young people see their older role models behaving in such ways and gaining traction for their behaviour in the form of likes and shares, it can be easy for children to believe this online behaviour is what is expected of them. It’s also important to remember that the brain continues to develop until the age of 25, so it can be difficult for young people to rationally consider their behaviour and its future implications and consequences.

For many young people, talking about experiences of online bullying can be difficult. For some, they simply don’t want to admit to themselves or to others that they are being bullied. For others, they are worried that confiding in a trusted adult may result in further harassment if the perpetrator finds out the victim ‘told on’ them.  They may also worry that parents and carers will see technology as the root of the problem and will consequently take away their online privileges or devices. Often, young people can feel trapped by the situation and try to figure it out for themselves.

It can be difficult to establish if a child is being bullied online. For older children, much of their behaviour could be attributed to typical teenage behaviour, where they may shrug off attempts to talk about their feelings with a parent or carer. Younger children are more likely to be scared by the situation and worry that telling an adult could lead to further problems. It is important to remember that being a victim of online bullying can have an impact on their relationships with trusted adults, who they may otherwise turn to for advice.

Parents, carers and those who work with children should learn to recognise the signs that a child is being bullied online. These signs can include, but are not limited to:

  • Secretive use of technology
  • Sudden changes in their relationship with technology – e.g. refusing to use it or obsessively going online
  • Nervous, jumpy or distressed reaction to notifications on their devices
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Difficulty sleeping and frequent nightmares
  • Emotional changes that include being withdrawn, distressed or anxious
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Changes in relationships or friendship groups

If you are concerned that a child or child in your care is being bullied online, the best piece of advice we can offer is to talk to them and take and active interest in what they do online. Ideally, begin talking to your child about their online experiences from the moment they begin their digital journey. Encourage them to talk about what they like about being online, but also what they don’t. Try and encourage them to share with you the types of content and contact they have online and how this makes them feel – both the good and the bad. Use this as an opportunity to question and challenge certain behaviours they may be exposed to online and remind them that their online behaviour should reflect what is expected offline. By establishing this relationship early in their digital lives, they are far more likely to turn to you for support when things go wrong, such as experiences of cyberbullying.

In situations where your child or a child in your care has told you they have experienced online bullying, try not to react too quickly. It will have taken a lot of courage for the young person to tell you, so be empathetic to their feelings and discuss your next steps together. Take the time to really listen and digest what they are telling you and encourage them to share with you any evidence of the bullying behaviours. This will help you do assess what actions would be appropriate.

If your child or a child in your care has been a victim of cyberbullying on a social media or gaming platform, encourage your child to use the ‘report’ and ‘block’ functions, which will report the behaviour to the platform but also stop the perpetrator from having further contact with your child. For more information on reporting and blocking for different social media and gaming apps, refer to the In the Know parent and carer app guides.

In some situations, it will be necessary to report online bullying to your child or child in your care’s school. Take the time to become familiar with the school’s cyberbullying policy in order to establish what your collective next steps should be. Remember that your child needs to feel comfortable with any actions you may want to take, so keep them involved in the process.

Whilst all of the above methods are useful for dealing with online bullying behaviours after they have occurred, it is vitally important to educate young people on cyberbullying more generally, to help raise awareness of what they can do to prevent it. Good digital safety education will help young people to make better and more positive choices online. Encourage them to really consider who they want to be online and remind them that everything they do online creates a profile of them which will follow them throughout their digital lives. Talk to your child about the information they share about themselves, and the risks involved in oversharing. Whilst it’s a difficult thing for a child to consider, they should reflect upon how the content they choose to share could make them a target of negative behaviour.

It is also important that we empower young people progress from being a bullying bystander to an upstander, or for younger children, to be peer superheroes. This means taking an active role in stopping bullying behaviours online. This doesn’t always need to be as bold as it may sound. It can be as simple as not sharing on content that has been posted with the pure intent of causing harm. Instead, use this as an opportunity to share kindness online. Talk to your child about the different ways they can be an upstander to online bullying, such as challenging the behaviour when it occurs, interrupting situations when they perceive bullying is going to take place and supporting others in reporting and blocking. By shifting the negative focus of bullying, these young people may just help to reduce the incidents of cyberbullying taking place.

The reality is that any victim of bullying, online or otherwise, can suffer with increased anxiety, low self-esteem and it can have a negative impact on their wellbeing more generally. Take time to become familiar with the specialist help that is available for young people who have experienced cyberbullying. Websites such as Childline and the NSPCC have dedicated helplines and online resources to help victims of online bullying. Ditch the Label also has support forums ands blogs where young victims of bullying can connect with others with similar experiences to their own, without fear of shame or judgement.