Our Safeguarding Manager, Daniel Jarrett, writes about what constitutes cyber-bullying and cyber-aggression, the signs, the risks, and how to best prepare and protect children and young people. He also draws upon a case study from his own experience.
Cyberbullying and acts of cyber-aggression are increasingly becoming greater risks for both children and young people. An increase in the use of the internet, social media, and mobile phones has created a new arena where bullying can take place, one which adults and professionals are finding difficult to monitor and control. A recent report jointly produced by Sir John Cass’s Foundation and The University of Buckingham entitled, ‘Beyond The School Gates‘, has highlighted the increasing risk of cyberbullying to adolescents in the UK.
Although similar in nature, there are differences between cyberbullying and cyber-aggression so it is important to begin with their definitions:
Cyberbullying is defined 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 & Smith, 2015).
Cyber-aggression has been defined as “intentional harm delivered by the use of electronic means to a person or group of people irrespective of their age, who perceive(s) such acts as offensive, derogatory, harmful, or unwanted” (Grigg, 2010).
According to the aforementioned report, cyberbullying is a repeated act, while cyber-aggression also encompasses one-off experiences of online aggression.
In comparison to face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying can allow perpetrators to remain anonymous and they do not have to witness their victim’s reaction. The potential audience for cyberbullying is clearly greater as comments and images can be spread to the entire internet immediately. Cyberbullying can also occur continuously throughout the day, which increases the anxiety and fear in the victim (‘Beyond The School Gates’, 2017).
According to studies undertaken with victims of cyberbullying, cyberbullying can lead to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, substance misuse, poor psychosocial adjustment, and school absenteeism.
Of the young people interviewed for the report, 69% had experienced at least 1 type of cyber-aggression (being called a hurtful name, been threatened, having rumours spread about them, etc) while 43% defined their experience as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying was reported to most likely occur on social media and IM apps, via text messaging, and in chat rooms / online forums. The report found that there were no differences in rates between genders and 80% of the victims knew the identity of their perpetrator.
The effects of cyberbullying on young people is of a high concern when managing risk and wellbeing as many young people reported feeling “worthless”, “empty” and “not normal”. The study found that young people were also at an increased risk of experiencing feelings of sadness and depression, low-self-esteem, rejection and isolation, self-harming, and having thoughts of suicide. It is also important to note that 27.7% of the young people interviewed for the report said that they did not want to go to school on some days due to something that was said or done to them online. This final point was highlighted in a case study from my practice which has been included below.
Alan was a fourteen year old boy who had moved boroughs at the beginning of the previous term and was settling into his new school. I began working with Alan at the beginning of Spring Term, as his attendance had suddenly decreased and he was struggling to be at school for just one day a week. Alan’s mum had physical health difficulties and school professionals were also finding it difficult to engage with her. Teachers had tried speaking to Alan when he attended about the reasons for his absence; however, Alan kept saying that he had been unwell and did not want to talk about it further.
Through perseverance and numerous unannounced home-visits, I finally managed to meet with mum and Alan after a month of the case being open. Mum explained that she did not know why Alan did not want to go to school but that he often complained of being unwell. Due to her physical health difficulties and emotional well-being, mum was reluctant to challenge Alan about his attendance and allowed him to stay at home.
In my initial visit, Alan said that he often had headaches and stomach ache but that there was nothing wrong with school and he enjoyed it when he attended. He said that he had struggled to make friends initially but he now had a few people he could call friends. I noticed during the initial visit that Alan had a mobile phone which buzzed on several occasions. When asked about what he used it for, Alan replied, “Usual stuff” and did not want to talk any further. We planned a routine to help Alan prepare for school and we agreed that we would give it a two week trial period to see whether his attendance improved.
Unfortunately, over the next two weeks, Alan’s attendance did not improve, regardless of the new routine and his mum and myself providing encouragement. During this time, I undertook several home-visits and kept noticing that Alan was constantly on his phone. I discussed my concern with mum and she said that she had not noticed. I sat down with both mum and Alan and discussed ways of keeping yourself safe online as well as the risks involved in using social media and related sites. Alan was extremely quiet throughout but seemed to acknowledge the risks. I decided to come back again the next day to try and speak to Alan on a one-to-one basis. During this home-visit, Alan eventually disclosed that he had been receiving daily text messages and messages via social media from a group of boys at his new school. These messages had been extremely hurtful and were often threatening in tone. Alan said that he was scared of going to school, sleeping poorly and felt very low and sad.
Although initially reluctant, Alan agreed to allow me to arrange a family meeting with his head of year at school to discuss this cyberbullying and try to resolve the issues. The school were extremely understanding of Alan’s concerns and said that they would be dealing with the offence immediately so Alan could feel safe in returning to school. Alan was resistant at first and said that he wanted to change schools; however, he understood that he needed to try. Alan also agreed to a referral to the local CAMHS service to help him manage his anxiety and low self-esteem. School agreed to address the issue in an up and coming assembly as well as supporting Alan in building his online safety and his confidence in managing the risks he might encounter online moving forward. I also agreed to undertake further one-to-one work with Alan around safety online as well as working with mum on ensuring she was aware of the risks and how to monitor them effectively moving forward.
Alan’s attendance increased very slowly over the next months but with time, and support from CAMHS and the school, his self-esteem and mood improved which led to him enjoying school more and building a positive friendship and peer network.
As highlighted in the report by Sir John Cass’s Foundation and the University of Buckingham, there are several areas of work that need prioritising to improve online safety for young people.
As well as government / public campaigns, it is important that schools address the issues with students directly and this can be done through the curriculum and devising specific lesson plans around anti-bullying messages and promoting the positive use of ICT.
It is also important to encourage parents / carers to take a more proactive stance in educating themselves and their children in the apps and websites their children are using and how to use these safely and responsibility.
For practitioners, it is vital that they are conducting direct work with children and young people to promote their digital literacy so young people are able to build their confidence and resilience in managing and addressing the risks they may encounter online.
If you have any concerns for the safety of a child or young person and believe them to be at risk of cyberbullying, it is important to discuss these concerns with parents, schools, and outside agencies to ensure that any support needs are addressed and the risks reduced.
The full report by Sir John Cass’s Foundation and the University of Buckingham, ‘Beyond The School Gates’, can be found here: http://bit.ly/2CrLGMa
BullyingUK – https://www.bullying.co.uk/ – Bullying UK, part of Family Lives, is a charity providing advice and support to anyone affected by bullying
Childline – https://www.childline.org.uk/info-advice/bullying-abuse-safety/types-bullying/ – Information and advice on all types of bullying, plus a useful avenue for further support and guidance
StopSpeakSupport – https://www.stopspeaksupport.com/ – Stop, Speak, Support aims to help young people spot cyberbullying and know what steps they can take to stop it happening and provide support to the person being bullied
YoungMinds – https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/feelings-and-symptoms/bullying/ – Further support and guidance for young people affected by bullying. Includes advice for parents as well.
*Names have been changed