In recent years, England has faced an increase in cyberbullying compared to other countries. This problem is compounded by the increase in digital activity among teenagers during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Cyberbullying, sometimes called online harassment or abuse, refers to behaviors where a person repeatedly harms others using electronic devices and technologies. The modern abundance of devices with Internet access makes it easy for cyberbullies to remain anonymous and create multiple accounts with different identities, giving them the freedom to attack multiple social media users at once, often without interruption.
There are many means of torture. These include posting on social media with the intention of threatening or humiliating someone, publishing embarrassing or intimidating videos or photos, and posting someone’s personal or private information, such as where they live, online.
All this makes harassment victims feel isolated, scared and depressed. We know that sadly many victims contemplate suicide.
We have investigated school bullying and cyberbullying among youth in the UK, and recently published our findings. About 408 people aged 16-30 participated in this research project, which involved completing an online survey. The majority (351, or about 90%) were still in school at the time they attended.
Some 37% of participants reported that they had experienced cyberbullying. Victims primarily categorized the perpetrators as their classmates, followed by students perceived as “popular” at school, older boys or girls, and people unknown to them.
Victims occurred across different platforms, with Facebook being the most reported (74%), followed by Twitter (17%), Snapchat (9%) and Instagram (9%). Common forms of harassment include spreading malicious rumors (49% of participants who experienced cyberbullying said they had been subject to the rumours), threats (44%), and exclusion from a group, such as a chat room or online game (29%).
Although our sample size was relatively small, and the majority of respondents were women, these findings are concerning, suggesting cyberbullying of each other at large. Importantly, victims reported that the online incidents they had been victims of most commonly occurred because of arguments in real-life settings. So it is clear that cyberbullying and bullying at school are often intertwined.
Read more: Anonymous apps run the risk of promoting cyberbullying but they also play an important role
When school bullying and cyberbullying collide
Nowadays, more and more schools and teachers tolerate students using mobile phones in school. And although access to social media and the Internet can be a useful educational tool, there are students who use technology to victimize their classmates or others.
Other researchers have shown that verbal aggression and violent behavior can be accompanied by cyberbullying, and vice versa. Bullying in the schoolyard can be attributed to online bullying, or vice versa, at the hands of the perpetrator, or revenge by the victim. As one of our participants said:
He bullied me at school, threw my things around for no reason and laughed at me with his friends, making fun of my clothes and the way I spoke. I couldn’t take it anymore, so one day I created a fake Facebook account and sabotaged it with texts and posts. I’m not sorry, he deserved it for what he was doing to me at school.
Another participant told us:
He [a girl at the participant’s school] Keep telling people to ignore me and don’t like my posts. Whenever I uploaded a photo she would embarrass me and she used to share my pictures with others just for laughs […] So one day I just went to her and told her to leave me alone but she laughed and got so angry that I pushed her down. Now she does it more and her friends have also joined in. I don’t know how to stop it.
What should we do?
In today’s digital age, bullying among children and youth does not stop when the school bell rings. But it appears that protective policies have progressed much more slowly than cyberbullying tools.
It is clear from our study and other research in this area that Facebook is a particularly risky platform for cyberbullying. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has strongly denied criticism that while the company prioritizes profit over users’ safety, it would be timely to look at further security for users.
For example, when online harassment is reported, Facebook must work to reduce response times. Although we understand that reports are usually reviewed within 48 hours, this may provide sufficient time for further dissemination of abusive content.
Read more: How cyberbullies openly and covertly target their victims
Separately, it is important that schools and policy makers pay as much attention to cyberbullying as they do to traditional bullying, as well as the way the two interact. While there are several campaigns to raise awareness of cyberbullying, it is possible that adolescents in the UK would benefit from a more intensive and sustained campaign to inform parents about the safety of their children.
Such campaigns may include expert advice for parents on how to constructively monitor their child’s online behavior, how to support their child if they become a victim of cyberbullying, and if their child is cyberbullied. How to manage the situation if it is threatening. It is also important to regularly educate children in school about the consequences of bullying and cyberbullying in school.