South Africa showed the highest prevalence of cyber-bullying in a recent report by Ipsos Global, based on research in 28 countries. The report showed that more than 80% of South Africans said they were aware of cyber-bullying and almost three-quarters of South Africans believe that the anti-bullying measures that are in place are insufficient. A Vodafone survey from 2018 ranked South Africa fourth for teen cyber-bullying out of 13 countries, and Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, a South African in-school Digital Life Skills Program teaching digital life skills program for schools, says that it’s likely even more prevalent, based on student feedback.
Cyber-bullying is real, it’s here, and it’s harming South African children and teenagers daily, with its effects often being mistaken for ‘kids just being kids’ by parents who are yet to understand how rife and damaging cyber-bullying can be. Anti-Bullying Week 2019, from 11-15 November, is a good time for schools to pay attention to the extent of cyber-bullying, and for parents to get a handle on what they can do to avoid and deal with it.
“The challenge with cyber-bullying is that parents can’t permanently monitor their child’s devices,” explains McCoubrey, whose programme teaches thousands of students, parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online.
“Parents and teachers need specifics – not just the broad term of ‘cyber-bullying’ – as this is a broad and elusive form of ‘warfare’ on these devices – and parents will definitely find it difficult to track or understand what’s actually going on.
He shares the five faces of cyber-bullying:
- Children can use negative, harmful, false images or text, chat, apps or social media posts to embarrass or threaten someone.
- The sharing of personal or private information that may cause the victim to feel embarrassed or humiliated. This can surprisingly hail from a friend (a practical joke) or a former friend, turned enemy. In that event, the controlling of a person’s account, posting photographs, starting rumours, or changing profile photos can also occur.
- Faking profiles, known as ‘catfishing’, when bullies create new accounts and borrow profile photos and names and pretend to be a person to create a false relationship – sometimes sharing the personal and confidential declarations made in confidence.
- Sexting or sextortion is the sharing of nude photographs either within group chats, or on social media sites, or websites (although less likely due to the possibility of tracking the source of the publisher). Sextortion is focused more on the threat and bribery associated with publishing photographs, rather than the act itself.
- Video shaming is the sharing of videos of someone being embarrassed, threatened or hurt, and then publishing these to allow the content to go wider, or even viral, compounding the psychological harm.
Students and parents have a few options:
- Record: Most importantly, kids need to be reminded to record the cyber-bullying event by using the device to take a screenshot, and even send the screenshot to a safe place (email, storage) so you can take it off your device. This can be used to prove the problem exists as bullies are cunning and cover their tracks.
- Don’t take the bait: As difficult as it may seem, reacting is what the bully wants, and kids need to avoid the situation, and remove themselves from groups or feeds which aren’t supporting their mental health. It may be hard but it’s necessary.
- Seek support: Parents and schools need to create safe spaces to discuss the issues and not ‘freak out’ – students often say that reactive parents and teachers who tackle the issue too abruptly can snowball or magnify the problem. Adults need to handle situations calmly with patience and maturity.
- Engage: From a mental health perspective, students need support, but it’s essential to select a trusted expert. This may be a counsellor or senior figure in the school to assist with the situation. Alternatively you can seek out a social media lawyer or the police, dependent on the extent of the harm. Suggestions include SafetyNet for bullying, or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group for mental health concerns.
In conducting MySociaLife’s interactive social media and safety program, which includes a module about cyber-bullying, McCoubrey has been surprised by students coming forward and admitting they had no idea of the extent of cyber-bullying, the different sensitivities of human beings, and how different images, social media posts, chat forums and messages can hurt people, and impact them long-term. McCoubrey explained that of the ten modules they teach; cyber-bullying is the #1 problem followed by mental health and self-esteem, then privacy and security and sexuality online.
But cyber-bullying is an issue which starts early and continues throughout. It’s the nature of social media – we feel we have a voice to say good and bad things! “These are kids, and because they look savvy online, it doesn’t mean they have the maturity to handle the device.
“Four out of 10 kids don’t want to share their concerns. We need to find a way to engage, a safe platform to discuss these concerns, without withdrawing them from their community, unless of course that’s a necessity to keep them safe.
According to Commonsense Media, there are four parties involved in a cyber-bullying situation: the cyberbully that’s using digital tools to deliberately upset or harass their target – the victim of cyber-bullying. The bystanders are aware that something cruel is happening, but who stay on the side-lines out of indifference or fear of becoming targets themselves. The upstanders are the kids who actively try to stop the cyber-bullying cycle, whether it’s by sticking up for the victim, standing up to the bully, or notifying the appropriate authorities about what’s happening.
“Parents and teachers can use Anti-Bullying Week to make children aware that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make the online and real life worlds a safe place,” says McCoubrey. “Anyone can be an upstander by reporting a bully, flagging a cruel comment, or even just choosing not to forward or share cyber-bullying content. Doing so will stop a cyber-bullying episode from escalating, and will reduce or even remove the bully’s power.
“It’s also important to have open paths of communication with everyone and to continue talking about how to prevent cyber-bullying from happening. That is why every school should have a digital life skills program in place,” he says.