Bullies are no longer just causing trouble on the playground

It is hard to remember how we felt about school and the friends we had when we were younger, however, for a moment, let’s put ourselves back into the shoes of our teenage selves. Imagine sitting at home on a Tuesday morning knowing the bell had just announced the start of the second class for the day. You know you are supposed to attend your maths class now, but the thought of showing your face is so unbearable that the repercussions of staying at home will be easier to handle. You are not sure what this feeling you are experiencing is called (adults call it anxiety and depression), your heart is broken, you feel fearful, ashamed and rejected.

Adults keep on preaching that the future looks bright and that there is a big world out there, however that sounds so far out of reach that they might as well be speaking about a character in a sci-fi movie. For now, all you are is lonely. No longer part of WhatsApp groups, Facebook friends have unfriended you and you aren’t being ‘tagged’ in Instagram posts anymore either. The only trace of your existence on social media platforms are the horrible, personal and hurtful comments being posted by the bullies.

All of this leads to trouble at home, unsatisfied teachers and a wider gap between you and the friends you once had. Everything gets darker and the safest place to be is alone, with your own disturbing, distorted thoughts. The only way out, it seems, is the thought of committing suicide.

While this sounds dramatic, the rejection and depression young people experience through cyberbullying is a reality that has sadly led to many young people committing suicide.

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What is cyberbullying?

The concept of bullying is not new and no matter what your age, you probably have been exposed to it at some stage in your life.

Bullies are no longer just causing trouble on the playground though. With the use of digital media, the bullies’ devastating impact now exceeds physical barriers. A study by UNISA, published in 2014, focused on the ‘Online safety of high school learners in Gauteng’ and was based on interviews with 1 467 learners. The study found that 97.7% of these learners had access to the Internet with 87% using their cell phone to interact online. With so many young people able to connect, imagine the power of the communication shared. Imagine how their connectivity is being used for good, and sadly, for bad.

There are many definitions of cyberbullying, but most of them have the following in common:

  • Hurtful rumours and/or messages are shared on social media and digital platforms
  • Posts include images, drawings, words, comparisons, competitions and even references being made to people whom the victim knows or cares for
  • This leads to defamation, humiliation and even creating hatred for the victim in others’ minds
  • The true identity of the bully or bullies is usually hidden
  • It is a process that sometimes last weeks or longer
  • It involves child-to-child communication. If an adult gets involved it is termed cyberstalking and harassment

How do you deal with it and set the boundaries?

Conversations and open communication is key, as we need to talk about acceptable online behavior. By doing this we can better ensure that young people understand the risks of not only being a victim of cyberbullying, but also of being the bully.

As parents you could also:

  • Be a Facebook or an online friend, with the intention of observing (and never commenting)
  • Teach children to not respond to messages which could be seen as bullying or harassment
  • Take a screen grab or photo of the messages as evidence and discuss the interaction with the child offline
  • Set a good example when posting messages to friends or on social platforms such as news sites. Your kids might be able to see it if they Google your name
  • Talk about child pornography and the dangers of taking compromising photos and also the risks of sharing these images
  • Report pornography immediately. A place to start is on the Film and Publication Board’s website //www.fpbprochild.org.za/ReportAbuse.aspx
  • Watch and discuss video tools and movies on YouTube as a family. Films such as Disconnect (//www.disconnectthemovie.com/ ) and The Cyberbully Movie (https://youtu.be/rOk2rtUIJ-g) will give you as a parent better insight and help steer the discussion to ensure your children are well aware of the dangers. First watch the videos yourself to determine age appropriateness.

Education and support are the first steps in eradicating cyberbullying. Don’t delay having these open and honest discussions with your children. Take them out for a walk in the park or an ice cream and have the conversation to ensure you, as a family, set some clear boundaries in place to stop cyberbullying.

Article by Mergan Govender, Deputy Principal of Crawford Preparatory Sandton and Rianette Leibowitz from SaveTNet